AT&T Plans LTE Expansion Thanks to FCC Vote

AT&T plans to roll out an LTE network using WCS spectrum in three years, the carrier announced after the FCC unanimously voted to free up WCS spectrum for broadband use.

The U.S Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Oct. 17 to free up 30MHz of Wireless Communication Services (WCS) spectrum for use with mobile broadband and specifically Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks. The vote is a win for AT&T and Sirius XM, which in June submitted a proposal outlining how, were it made available, they would use the WCS band.

Because WCS has caused interference with satellite communications—including Sirius' radio offerings—it has essentially been an empty, untouchable lot in a market battling for real estate.

AT&T's current LTE network is something of a mish-mash, reliant on cobbled-together portions of 700MHz and Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) licenses, as GigaOm's Kevin Fitchard has done a good job of explaining. The carrier decided that its one chance at a continuous swath of coverage would be to buy all the WCS holdings it could. In August it purchased WCS spectrum from NextWave, made arrangements to buy more from Comcast and Horizon Wi-Com and submitted its plan to the FCC. Fitchard writes that according to UBS Investment Research analyst John Hodulik, AT&T is also in talks with Sprint, which holds the last of the WCS licenses.

With the FCC's stated approval, AT&T's purchases have paid off.

"AT&T took real risks to develop this underutilized band and is committed to devoting the resources necessary to unlock its full potential," Joan Marsh, AT&T vice president of Federal Regulatory said in an Oct. 17 post on the AT&T public policy blog. "We expect to commence deployment of LTE infrastructure in the band in as early as three years, allowing us to enhance our wireless broadband services."

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in a statement, called the order good for America.

"The U.S. has become the world's test bed for 4G LTE services and applications, which is vital for U.S. innovation leadership and for sustainable job creation," wrote Genachowski. He added removing regulatory barriers is just one way that the FCC is working to free up spectrum and increase the efficiency of its use.

"The commission is also reallocating underutilized spectrum, as with the historic incentive auction; moving forward with traditional auctions; working with our partner agencies to clear and reallocate government spectrum; enabling dynamic spectrum sharing; and facilitating secondary market transactions," said Genachowski.

FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, in his own statement, likened the order to the "Prime Directive" guiding the Enterprise crew on Star Trek. It prevents harmful interference among wireless licenses, he wrote, and ensures that "consumers receive the reliable and high-quality wireless broadband communications services they demand and deserve."

AT&T spent most of 2011 trying to convince the FCC, ultimately unsuccessfully, to allow it to purchase T-Mobile, which it wanted for its spectrum.

During a January 2012 earnings call, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson aired his frustrations with the FCC, which he said hadn't held a significant spectrum auction in nearly five years, took up to a year to approve even the "most routine spectrum deals" and seemed "intent on picking winners and losers, rather than letting these markets work."

Stephenson added, "We need the FCC's action and leadership."

AT&T's Marsh, in her post, expressed her appreciation to the FCC chairman, commissioners and staff and congratulated them for bringing AT&T's proposal forward to a final order.

"The era of regulatory dispute and uncertainty in the WCS band," wrote Marsh, "is finally drawing to a close."