ATandT Preparing for Major Wireless Spectrum Shift Within Five Years

NEWS ANALYSIS: Purchase of 4G spectrum from NextWave and the shutdown of its 2G service will help give AT&T the space it needs to expand LTE offerings, assuming all the details are approved by the FCC.

In a pair of moves over the past two days, telecom giant AT&T has taken steps to gather the necessary spectrum to build out the Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network it needs over the next five years.

On Aug. 2, AT&T agreed to acquire NextWave Wireless, a failing carrier with spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission has been trying to repurpose for years. Then on Aug. 3, AT&T announced that it would phase out its 2G data network by the beginning of 2017.

In an email, an AT&T spokesperson told eWEEK, €œTo help support the explosion of mobile Internet usage and give our customers a great experience, we plan to fully discontinue service on our 2G wireless networks by approximately Jan. 1, 2017. This will enable us to free up spectrum for added capacity on our mobile Internet network.€

The spokesperson said AT&T will be working with customers who are still using 2G services to provide options that will meet their needs. AT&T has relatively few customers who currently depend on 2G data, and that number is expected to diminish through attrition by 2017. AT&T no longer sells 2G devices.

By freeing up 2G spectrum, AT&T will have more space available for LTE, in much the same way that Sprint is phasing out its iDEN spectrum so it has room for LTE. Currently, it€™s unclear which of its services AT&T considers 2G and plans to shut down.

GSM, which is what AT&T uses for its voice technology is the international standard and is used throughout the world, is technically a 2G standard, but the 2G data standard that AT&T uses is General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), which is not widely used although it is widely available on the AT&T network.

EDGE communications are considered 3G, and apparently not in AT&T€™s plans for shutdown. Likewise AT&T€™s Evolved High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) and LTE networks are considered 3G and 4G and would not be shut down on this plan. Questions to the AT&T spokesperson did not provide details as to what services in AT&T€™s spectrum are planned for shutdown when support for 2G ends.

The plans for the NexWave LTE spectrum are also a ways off. While NextWave is in dire financial straits, the use of its spectrum for LTE data services has yet to be approved by the FCC. However, the owner of the adjacent spectrum, Sirius XM and AT&T filed a joint proposal that would clear up a number of engineering issues and as a result would open the 2.3GHz Wireless Communications Service (WCS) to use as an LTE data band. The FCC filing outlined a number of limitations on WCS operations that would prevent AT&T€™s WCS operations from interfering with Sirius XM€™s audio services.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...