T-Mobile Takes Spectrum Fight to the People

The fight for low-band spectrum in the US is heating up, with T-Mobile appealing to US consumers to help fight its battle and working to block AT&T's own spectrum acquisition efforts.

T-Mobile US Inc. has put out videos this week asking smartphone owners to petition the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to amend its rules for the upcoming 600 MHz spectrum auction to give small carriers -- T-Mobile included -- more than 30MHz of reserved low-band spectrum, so that it stands a chance bidding against the big two, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless .

The self-proclaimed uncarrier has been banging this drum for awhile, protesting what it sees as the big two dominance of spectrum in the US. Most recently, it tried two approaches to get consumers to care about the spectrum that supports their wireless experience: a not-atypical profanity-leaden message from T-Mobile CEO John Legere and a more kid-friendly cartoon. Watch both below. (See T-Mobile Boss Asks Consumers to Pressure FCC on Low-Band.)

At the same time, T-Mobile is petitioning the FCC to block AT&T's attempt to acquire spectrum from West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, noting that "the competitive harms resulting from the proposed transaction greatly outweigh any potential benefits AT&T has or could advance." Essentially, T-Mobile believes the deals would give AT&T too much spectrum in those regions.

AT&T shot back in a statement that it needs the spectrum to build out a 10×10 MHz LTE network in these markets, and that T-Mobile's "disdain for rural investment has long been evident." T-Moblie could be investing in rural America on its own, AT&T claims, but has chosen instead to focus on currying favor with the FCC and attacking AT&T.

For more on the 4G spectrum wars, visit the dedicated 4G/LTE content section
right here on Light Reading.

Low-band spectrum is particularly valuable because of its propagation characteristics that make it well suited for rural and indoor coverage, areas where T-Mobile has struggled. T-Mobile says it will expand to cover 300M POPs by the end of 2015, including in rural areas. It maintains it needs the spectrum to improve its coverage there, although it has admitted in the past that its priority is improving the density of its network in urban environments. (See Q&A: The Castle in T-Mobile's LTE Network and T-Mobile: Going Bananas for Low-Band .)

Interestingly, Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) President Steven Berry told Light Reading at the Big Telecom Event that T-Mobile is "still trying to figure out how to best partner with small carriers." Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) is working with the CCA on forming roaming relationships with rural operators to expand its coverage. T-Mobile was thought to be a likely next partner as it would give it a relatively easy way to expand its rural presence, but the carrier has yet to work out a formal agreement. (See Sprint Might Sit Out 600MHz Spectrum Auction and Sprint Joins Forces With Rural America on LTE.)

It will be up to the FCC to decide if it buys T-Mobile's argument that it needs special access to the low-band spectrum, or whether it sides with AT&T. Maximizing its own revenue-earning potential from the auction and balancing broadcasters' concerns with vacating the spectrum will be important considerations for it as well, of course. (See Hey Big Spenders! AT&T, Dish & VZ Splash Cash on Spectrum and FCC Chief: Keep Spectrum Open for Smaller Carriers.)

"No single party will be happy with everything we've done, but the final product is a balanced solution to a challenging situation with more moving parts than a Swiss watch," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a statement last week.

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading

danielcawrey 6/25/2015 | 3:19:23 PM
Re: T-Mobile posturing? Glad to hear T-Mobile is trying to expand its capabilities for better indoor and rural coverage.

I've always found that's where the company is lacking, but it could make up ground pretty easily I think by getting more spectrum – and mobilizing its own customer base is not a bad idea. 
mhhf1ve 6/24/2015 | 3:16:24 PM
Re: T-Mobile posturing? RE: "do you really think it'll be successful in making consumers care about spectrum?"

I think this is a modest campaign to at least try to get people aware of the issue. Who knows? It may not spread like a John Oliver segment, but it could get some people to contact the FCC in record numbers (since the bar for consumers contacting the FCC isn't really that high). And that would bolster the current FCC Chairman's position of being far more of a consumer watchdog than his predecessors. 
mhhf1ve 6/24/2015 | 3:12:21 PM
Re: T-Mobile posturing? T-Mobile's approach to rural coverage seems like an unrelated attack on its strategy to me. Sure, T-mo *could* be covering more rural areas -- but that's not where its new customers are going to come from, mostly. T-mo is stealing customers away from Sprint/AT&T/VZ in mostly urban and suburban areas, I'd bet. So sure, its competitors would love to see T-Mo try to waste its resources on chasing after rural customers who will try T-Mo and then switch back to VZ because VZ has a much more reliable network in rural areas.

T-Mo just can't afford to chase rural areas right now. They are the 4th carrier, and people expect it to try to do everything as well as the "duopoly" with much larger subscriber bases? I just don't see T-Mo having the resources to spread itself too thinly... It's better for T-Mo in the long run to have its own low band spectrum, and not waste time negotiating piecemeal contracts for customers that aren't really a high priority on anyone's list.

It would be nice if every company tried to serve everyone equally... but I think it's understandable when a company that isn't in the top position prioritizes its goals and chases the low hanging fruit.
mhhf1ve 6/24/2015 | 3:03:36 PM
Will current devices be able to access this spectrum? I'm just curious if anyone knows offhand if current smartphones are able to use 600MHz frequencies -- or if this is a battle that will determine whether or not future devices will be able to have more carrier options.... (I suppose I could google this answer myself, but...)
Sarah Thomas 6/24/2015 | 2:52:55 PM
T-Mobile posturing? I don't doubt that T-Mobile needs more spectrum, but it seems suspect that it's not doing more to improve rural coverage before the 600MHz auction next year. It could work out more roaming deals, deploy on the spectrum it does have and use small cels, but it doesn't seem interested in that.

Also, do you really think it'll be successful in making consumers care about spectrum? Sure, they want lower prices, but I can't see many caring about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into deploying LTE. They don't even really care about what LTE is as long as it works.
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