Based on developments in 2012 and continuing this year, it is clear that the major carriers will have the necessary spectrum to offer more robust wireless broadband services for years to come. In addition to spectrum acquisitions, the FCC adopted decisions facilitating mobile broadband operations on spectrum originally allocated to the Mobile Satellite Service (“MSS”) and, in other cases, initially authorized for narrowband voice communications or largely undeveloped because of adjacent channel interference concerns.
The willingness of the carriers to expend billions of dollars for spectrum and FCC decisions “repurposing spectrum” constitute a significant “doubling-down” on the future of wireless broadband. The downside is that an essential resource for prospective competitors is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the major wireless carriers.
Major Wireless Carriers Move Aggressively to Enhance Broadband Spectrum Holdings. As AT&T was acknowledging that DoJ and the FCC would not allow it to acquire T -Mobile at the end of 2011, spectrum deal-making began in earnest.
- Verizon Wireless announced its agreement with SpectrumCo and Cox Communications to acquire the cable companies’ substantial AWS spectrum holdings. Even though final approval was not granted until August, this transaction triggered a series of significant spectrum deals.
- On the heels of Verizon Wireless/SpectrumCo/Cox, AT&T initiated a series of transactions to acquire 700 MHz A and B Block licenses and, later in the year, entered into transactions to acquire multiple Wireless Communications Service (WCS) licenses in the 2.3 GHz band.
- T-Mobile and MetroPCS sought FCC approval to their proposed transaction that will consolidate operations, customers and spectrum holdings and enable deployment of “a network capable of supporting at least 20 x 20 MHz LTE deployments in many areas.”
- Relying on an anticipated cash infusion resulting from Softbank’s proposal to acquire control of Sprint, the nation’s 3rd largest wireless carrier offered to acquire all of Clearwire’s equity interests that it did not already possess in order to control Clearwire’s spectrum at 2.5 GHz. Dish Network Corporation (“DISH”) countered with its own offer for the Clearwire’s stock and asked the FCC to “stop the clock” on the FCC’s consideration of the Softbank/Sprint/Clearwire transactions.
- This month, AT&T agreed to acquire Atlantic Network’s wireless spectrum and customers, and AT&T and Verizon Wireless announced a transaction in which AT&T will acquire certain Verizon Wireless 700 MHz A-Block and B-Block licenses. Verizon Wireless is building its nationwide LTE network on the 700 MHz C-Block spectrum it acquired at auction several years ago.
The pending transactions are subject to the FCC’s current “case-by-case analysis” for assessing spectrum holdings in transactions and auctions. While the FCC has initiated a proceeding reassessing current policies for determining criteria for limiting spectrum holdings, this proceeding will not be resolved until the 2nd Quarter of 2013, at the earliest. In view of the closed and pending transactions noted above, the impact of new spectrum holding policies likely will be limited to future spectrum auctions.