AT&T Has Huge WiFi Network, Still Wants More Spectrum

AT&T, with the nation's largest WiFi network and a cellular network with enough spectrum to last five years, is still always looking for more.

AT&T has been emphasizing the increasing numbers of mobile connections that it facilitates, along with its ongoing need to make sure it has the necessary resources to keep doing so.

AT&T CFO John Stephens, speaking at a Morgan Stanley conference in San Francisco Feb. 26, said AT&T currently has enough spectrum to keep it comfortable for the next five years.

"At the same time, we continue to encourage the government to make more spectrum available," Stephens said. "And the reason [for that], is it takes a long time to get spectrum to market. It's a constant process."

AT&T has been critical of the government's handling of spectrum over the years—during a January 2012 earnings call, CEO Randall Stephenson vented that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seemed "intent on picking winners and losers," and that regulators had created a "capacity-constrained environment." But more recently—and particularly since the FCC stopped AT&T from acquiring smaller carrier T-Mobile in 2011, largely for its spectrum holdings—AT&T has seen plenty of green lights from regulators.

It figured out a way to get around the interference issues that have plagued satellite-designated spectrum and went on a buying spree, picking up as much Wireless Communications Service (WCS) spectrum as it could.

It's also in the process of buying a block of 700MHz spectrum from Verizon Wireless for $1.9 billion and acquiring the Alltel brand—in a deal that would include 585,000 subscribers and spectrum in the 700MHz, 850MHz and 1900MHz bands—from Atlantic Tele-Network for $780 million in cash.

Given these, Stephens said that AT&T is in a "much better position now than we were at the end of 2011."

But that didn't stop AT&T from writing to the FCC last month to say that, in the spectrum auctions set for 2014, it thinks the commission should "reject any proposal" that suggests that carriers with plenty of spectrum shouldn't be able to bid for more.

Those upcoming auctions recently also made headlines after FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski suggested that some of the available spectrum be put aside for a free, nationwide public WiFi network, as WiFi networks are becoming congested and slowing down.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have come out against the plan, likely fearing that more casual Internet users will drop their paid plans in favor of the free service, though the free service would be less robust than the carriers' offerings.

AT&T released a statement Feb. 26 to say that it operates the largest WiFi network in the country, which includes more than 32,000 hotspots and supported 2.7 billion connections in 2012.

AT&T said it also saw a 190 percent increase last year in mobile data uploads on its WiFi network, quarter over quarter, and during the fourth quarter saw 40 percent more connections than during the same quarter in 2011.

"WiFi works in tandem with our global network to keep people connected wherever they are," Josh Goodell, associate vice president of AT&T's WiFi Services, said in a statement. "With connectivity to our WiFi Network skyrocketing in 2012 by more than 1 billion connections year-over-year, WiFi is a clear factor in mobile use."