AT&T’s mid-band spectrum screen petition resurfaces

Should the FCC adopt a spectrum screen specific to mid-band spectrum?

That’s one of the questions the agency ponders as it seeks public comment on AT&T’s petition for rulemaking that requests that such a spectrum screen be adopted.  

AT&T submitted its petition in September 2021, but the FCC only recently issued its public notice seeking comment.  

Specifically, AT&T requested that the FCC apply “enhanced review” and even greater scrutiny to acquisitions of unpaired mid-band spectrum by an entity that already holds more than one-third of that spectrum in a particular area. Or course, the main target of AT&T’s ire here is T-Mobile.

The FCC’s notice first seeks comment on AT&T’s request that the commission initiate a rulemaking proceeding. It then asks for comment more broadly on whether the agency should recommend that the FCC, in the context of initiating a rulemaking process, should propose other changes to its mobile spectrum holdings rules and policies.

Why now?

The fact that the FCC is putting out a notice on a petition that was filed more than two years ago suggests that Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel – who now has a majority of Democrats on her panel – believes that the FCC should act and that there is a majority that agrees with her position, which presumably is that some screen is necessary, wrote New Street Research (NSR) policy analyst Blair Levin in an October 9 note for investors.

Levin also said that AT&T likely would only have filed the petition if it believes that such a screen would provide AT&T an advantage in the market. “We are far from knowing what the details will be – and the details matter – but in the ongoing spectrum battles the FCC Notice creates a possibility of a gain” for AT&T and a loss for T-Mobile, he added.

The NSR analyst pointed out that the FCC’s public notice came the same day that T-Mobile obtained a Senate vote unanimously supporting legislation that would result in T-Mobile obtaining the 2.5 GHz licenses it won in Auction 108. The FCC chair has said the agency can’t legally award the licenses because the agency doesn’t have its auction authority, but there was speculation that delaying the licenses also might be tied to AT&T’s spectrum screen petition.

AT&T’s argument

Indeed, AT&T argued in a filing in November 2022 that T-Mobile predictably emerged from the 2.5 GHz Auction 108 as the “easy winner,” poised to carry out a long-term strategy of preventing other carriers from getting anywhere close to its mid-band arsenal.

AT&T urged the commission at that time to promptly act on its petition and adopt mechanisms to prevent one carrier from getting too much mid-band spectrum. (To be clear, AT&T did not intend to include Auction 110 in the discussion, which is where it obtained 3.45 GHz mid-band 5G spectrum.)

In its petition, AT&T noted that the FCC already adopted separate mechanisms to address aggregation of low-band and high-band spectrum, but it hasn’t yet adopted similar rules to address mid-band spectrum.

AT&T also stated that the commission has used varying definitions of “mid-band” in the past depending on the spectrum needs of each generation of wireless technology. It proposes that the definition of mid-band in the 5G era be categorized as from 2.5 GHz to 6 GHz. In its notice, the FCC seeks comment on that definition, including AT&T’s suggestion that the lower end be 2.5 GHz instead of 1 GHz.

The FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics are asking for comments on the AT&T petition by October 23, with reply comments due November 8.