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FCC Chairman Grants AT&T’s Wish: Nationwide 4G Band


FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

Photograph by Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

AT&T asked, and the Federal Communications Commission most definitely listened. Three months after AT&T (T) submitted a complex proposal to turn a very cellular-unfriendly band into pristine 4G airwaves, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski appears set to push AT&T’s request through the commission.

Genachowski on Wednesday began circulating a proposed order among commissioners that, if approved, would give AT&T a free-and-clear 20 MHz of spectrum in the 2.3 GHz Wireless Communications Services (WCS) band for a new LTE network. Here’s what FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun had to say on the matter:

“Today’s action is part of Chairman Julius Genachowski’s continued efforts to remove regulatory barriers that limit the flexible use of spectrum, which is one way he has led the Commission toward helping address the continued ‘spectrum crunch.’ By unleashing 20 megahertz of spectrum now—and up to 30 megahertz in the future—the Chairman continues to leave no stone unturned when it comes to maximizing opportunities to refill the mobile spectrum pipeline that had begun to run dry over the last decade. In addition to removing regulatory barriers, the Commission continues to push ahead on innovative spectrum solutions in addition to traditional auctions, including incentive auctions, government-commercial sharing, technology-based opportunities like small cells, and freeing up unlicensed spectrum for innovations like Wi-Fi.”

Some of you may be wondering why AT&T is getting special dispensation from the government to rejigger its airwaves while others, such as LightSquared and Dish Network aren’t (at least, not yet). But it’s important to remember that unlike the satellite bands, WCS was always intended for wireless broadband services. The conditions of that spectrum, however, have made it impossible for any carrier to deploy a commercial network in those frequencies.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, the big problem is that a high-powered wireless network would interfere with Sirius XM’s neighboring satellite radio signals. But AT&T and Sirius hashed out a compromise that would turn 10 MHz of that spectrum into a guard bands on either side of Sirius’s spectrum, effectively ensuring that Ozzy’s Boneyard and Howard Stern are broadcast without interruption.

The catch is that in order for AT&T to pull this off, it needs to own pretty much the entire WCS band coast to coast, so it has been buying up licenses anywhere it can find them in the past two months, starting with the purchase of spectrum squatter NextWave Wireless.

The newly minted Competitive Carrier Association (formerly the Rural Carrier Association) has objected to those purchases, claiming that AT&T is trying to build a spectrum empire on the sly. Rather than build it with one big acquisition, as it tried to do with T-Mobile, AT&T is buying up bits and pieces of spectrum all over the country, says Steve Berry, CCA’s president and chief executive. In addition to buying half a dozen WCS licenses, AT&T is picking up 700 MHz and Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) licenses from several other sellers.

“Allowing the largest carriers to obtain unlimited amounts of spectrum on the secondary market raises serious competitive concerns,” Barry said in a CCA statement. “The only way for the FCC to truly see the devastating consequences of further spectrum aggregation is by consolidating the proposed applications. On their own, AT&T’s proposed license acquisitions may not seem significant, but when added together, it totals to a significant amount of spectrum.”

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Fitchard is a writer for the GigaOM Network.

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