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

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."

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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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