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AT&T asks the FCC to review and possibly block T-Mobile from buying more 5G mid-band spectrum

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AT&T asks the FCC to review and possibly block T-Mobile from buying more 5G mid-band spectrum
Back in 2017, T-Mobile was the big winner in the FCC's auction of 600MHz spectrum. The low-band airwaves travel long distances, penetrate structures, but do not deliver blinding fast download data speeds. T-Mobile has used this spectrum to create its nationwide 5G network. But the big haul came on April 1, 2020, when T-Mobile closed on its $26 billion acquisition of Sprint.

AT&T asks the FCC to block T-Mobile from adding to its holdings of mid-band spectrum


With T-Mobile considered by many to be the early 5G leader, it seems that AT&T is not happy about how things are shaking out for it. The nation's third-largest carrier asked the FCC on Wednesday to review the amount of 5G spectrum owned by T-Mobile and limit any additional 5G airwaves that the latter plans on buying. While a blog post published by AT&T didn't mention T-Mobile by name, Joan Marsh, AT&T's Executive Vice President of Federal Regulatory Relations revealed that AT&T had filed a petition with the FCC requesting that the regulatory agency use a spectrum screen for mid-band airwaves.

By applying the spectrum screen, as it did for high-band and low-band spectrum, the FCC can determine whether purchases of mid-band spectrum could "cause competitive harm by allowing a licensee to hold so much mid-band spectrum in a given market that it becomes impossible for others to compete effectively." The screening does not place a cap on the amount of mid-band spectrum a carrier can own and instead screens for acquisitions that would result in a single entity holding more than 33% of relevant frequencies in a single market.

In the event that a proposed deal triggers the 33% ownership screen, the FCC would conduct a more stringent investigation to determine if competition would be harmed by the purchase. AT&T's Marsh wrote, "Now, with 5G as the focus of investment and competition, it is clear that large blocks of mid-band spectrum are critical to 5G success. To the extent that such blocks become unduly concentrated in the hands of one or two licensees, 5G competition is likely to falter."

She adds, "Accordingly, just as it did for sub-1 GHz spectrum, we argue today that the FCC should adopt a mid-band screen for all allocations between 2.5 GHz and 6 GHz for all future spectrum acquisitions (except for those that result from Auction 110, for which the rules are already final)."

Buying Sprint gave T-Mobile control over a hoard of 2.5GHz mid-band spectrum that gave it a leg up on rivals like AT&T and Verizon. A shortage of mid-band spectrum available to U.S. carriers magnified the importance of the Sprint acquisition. That's because mid-band spectrum offers faster download speeds although it doesn't travel as far as low-band spectrum does. The fastest data speeds are delivered by high-band airwaves like mmWave, but these signals can only travel short distances which means that it will take longer to build out such a network coast to coast.

The purchase of Sprint by T-Mobile was a huge strategic move giving the carrier a huge advantage over its rivals


T-Mobile has been talking about its Triple Layer Cake for 5G service which combines low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrum. And while Verizon spent $45.4 billion and AT&T $23.4 billion on mid-band spectrum in the C-band, it turns out that T-Mobile's 2.5GHz mid-band signals travel 1.5 times farther.

Neville Ray, T-Mobile's president of technology, said earlier this year that "Simply put, Verizon and AT&T bet on the wrong horse — went all-in on millimeter-wave — and now they’re scrambling … and writing big checks … to try to catch up. Meanwhile, we’re on track to deploy Ultra Capacity 5G nationwide before they can even get their hands on C-Band."

To show you how things have changed in the U.S. wireless industry, before the 600MHz low-band auction in 2017, T-Mobile argued that larger carriers like Verizon should be limited in bidding for the spectrum.

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