AT&T’s McElfresh welcomes C-band, sidesteps Ligado question

While it’s permanently closing some stores and shifting a lot of activities to the online environment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, AT&T says it will continue to invest in its 5G network build this year, and that means keeping up with the Joneses in terms of spectrum.

AT&T’s low- and mid-band spectrum position is strong and timing for the C-band spectrum might be a little less urgent for AT&T than for others, but it is interested in seeing the C-band come to auction later this year, according to Jeff McElfresh, CEO of AT&T Communications, who appeared at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Telecom & Media Conference webcast on Tuesday.

He referenced what he called some known truths in the wireless business when asked a series of questions about spectrum.

“It takes a lot of fiber and a lot of physical site locations with high densification in order to realize the full potential of the spectrum,” said McElfresh, noting that he started in wireless 25 years ago when carriers were making choices about TDMA and CDMA. “There are heavy investments. They are not overnight investments that are required to build out” the right network using spectrum in the most competitive and effective manner.

Going forward, if you want to provide gigabit-type speeds on a wireless network, “it requires mid-band spectrum and lots of it” in a clean, unencumbered approach.

Therefore, “we at AT&T are certainly evaluating all options that might be available to the industry and C-band inclusive,” he said. “I will tell you we are encouraging the FCC to bring that spectrum to auction on their time table and you should expect that AT&T is clearly interested in that because there’s no other spectrum that’s available with that kind of bandwidth.”

The big question will be: Is it going to be unencumbered and can it be put to use in an orderly fashion in enough time to fulfill the market demand?

From that point of view, “our spectrum position at AT&T today is very solid,” he said. “Our low band and mid-band spectrum position is really strong… Timing for us might be a little bit less urgent,” but long-term, C-band will be a good spectrum addition for 5G.

Ligado’s L-band spectrum

Asked if AT&T is taking a hard look at Ligado Networks now that the spectrum has been freed up by the FCC, McElfresh said that’s probably not something he’s comfortable talking about.

“We will actively review all available spectrum and … not all spectrum is created equal and not all spectrum is worked through the broad ecosystem of chipset suppliers, handset, infrastructure players. The integration of putting spectrum to service in a market – it’s a multi-faceted approach and not an overnight event. Our teams are really skilled at this. We will continue to evaluate all available options.”

Ligado, the product of predecessor LightSquared, spent years getting its plan approved by the FCC. It still faces opposition from other government entities and came up during a Senate Commerce hearing Tuesday, where FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly defended the FCC’s 5-0 decision to approve Ligado’s license modification. NTIA has filed petitions with the FCC seeking a stay on the decision, claiming it could pose harmful interfere with government users of GPS.

It’s worth noting that Ligado also says not all spectrum is created equal. Unlike other mid-band spectrum in the pipeline, Ligado’s lower mid-band spectrum at 1-2 GHz is “greenfield,” meaning it’s unencumbered by legacy services and ready to be deployed immediately. The company holds 40 MHz of spectrum licenses in the nationwide block of 1500 MHz to 1700 MHz spectrum in the L-band.

RELATED: Ligado offers immediate opportunity for FCC, Verizon, T-Mobile - analyst

Analysts see Ligado’s spectrum as a great opportunity for wireless operators to get their hands on mid-band spectrum and for years the expectation has been that Ligado would sell its spectrum rights to the highest bidder.

Ligado has said it has acquired financing to build 5G IoT networks that serve mission-critical industries like public safety, transportation and manufacturing and the funds will go toward supporting expansion of the wireless ecosystem, including chipset and device development.