AT&T touts mmWave spectrum gains, but Verizon still has nearly 2X as much

AT&T boosted its millimeter wave spectrum holdings following the FCC’s latest 5G auction, saying this week that it’s 39 GHz position increased by more than 100%.

At the FCC’s recent Auction 103, AT&T won licenses covering 99% of the U.S. population. AT&T held 379 MHz of 39 GHz spectrum ahead of the auction, which it exchanged for vouchers that were put towards additional licenses. AT&T spent $1.2 billion at the auction, net of its vouchers (called incentive payments in FCC lingo) to improve its 39 GHz position to 786 MHz – a 102% increase.  

Combined with its 24 GHz spectrum holdings, the carrier now has 1,040 MHz on average nationwide of high-band millimeter wave spectrum.

“The large, contiguous block of spectrum we won in Auction 103 will be important to maintaining our 5G leadership across the industry,” said Scott Mair, president, AT&T Technology & Operations, in a statement. “This win boosts our already strong spectrum position. We thank the FCC for their work and congratulate them on the conclusion of another successful auction.”

RELATED: AT&T CFO touts ‘dramatic’ lead in spectrum

Still, while AT&T spent big at the FCC auction, which also offered 37 GHz and 47 GHz licenses, Verizon remains the leader in terms of millimeter wave spectrum.

Verizon already owned the vast majority of 28 GHz spectrum, and after the auction still maintained its significant lead over AT&T.  When combined with its 28 GHz holdings, Verizon has 2,024 MHz of millimeter wave spectrum – almost double the amount of mmWave that AT&T has at 1,041 MHz, according to Brian Goemmer, president of AllNet Insights.

Verizon spent $1.6 billion at Auction 103 for licenses covering 411 Partial Economic Areas (PEAs), also exchanging 39 GHz for vouchers. Before the auction, Verizon held about 39% of 39 GHz spectrum, compared to 27% held by AT&T, according to AllNet Insights & Analytics. After the auction that ratio changed to Verizon at 46% vs AT&T at 33%, AllNet graphs s provided to LightReading show.

RELATED: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile top spenders at mmWave 5G spectrum auction

It’s not necessarily surprising given that Verizon was an early advocate and has continued to push a millimeter wave-focused approach to 5G, while AT&T, like T-Mobile, has focused commercial services on low-band 5G that provides greater coverage but less impressive speeds.

AT&T has deployed millimeter wave 5G service (dubbed 5G+), which is meant for dense, high-traffic areas and is available in limited parts of 35 cities. Verizon, despite some criticism of its focus on mmWave, showed at Auction 103 that it’s not shying away from high-band 5G.

RELATED: Verizon CEO defends mmWave strategy for 5G

In February, Verizon said it planned to double the number of cities where it would offer high-band 5G service, expanding to 60 cities with mobile, and 10 cities for its 5G fixed wireless service, according to Fortune.

AT&T this week hinted that it, too, might introduce a fixed product in the future, in its release saying: “Once the network is built with the necessary density for mobile services, fixed services may follow.”

It will be interesting to see how the carriers’ millimeter wave strategies evolve, as Goemmer noted earlier that both AT&T and Verizon have zeroed in on 39 GHz, but each will operate in mmWave bands where the other is largely absent. For AT&T that’s 24 GHz and Verizon it’s 28 GHz.

As of March, Verizon owned 73% of 28 GHz spectrum, while AT&T had 36% of the 24 GHz spectrum, AllNet data shows.  

Carriers, and Verizon in particular, are still waiting on the upcoming C-band auction to get access to mid-band spectrum for broad coverage, but that will take time before it can be put into use.  

Can’t forget New T-Mobile

Then of course there’s the New T-Mobile – which is officially on the scene as T-Mobile and Sprint today announced the long-awaited close of their merger. Combining resources, including Sprint’s portfolio of about 160 MHz of coveted 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum and T-Mobile’s 600 MHz, the new player may dominate in terms of low-/mid-band 5G in the near term.

RELATED: T-Mobile, Sprint, Dish control 99% of 47 GHz spectrum

T-Mobile also acquired millimeter wave resources at the FCC's 5G spectrum auctions, including 47 GHz.

“TMUS will have the premier spectrum portfolio in the wireless space with over 300 MHz of low-and-mid-band spectrum (vs. AT&T at 176 MHz and VZ at 117 MHz),” wrote Wells Fargo analysts in a March 8 note to investors, noting AT&T and Verizon won’t be able to use C-band spectrum until 2021 at the earliest. “Mid-band spectrum is critical to any 5G architecture as it supports both capacity and coverage. TMUS’s clear line of sight to this spectrum will enable it to have a true 5G network faster than either VZ or T, in our view.”

It’s unclear what impact the current coronavirus pandemic will have on spectrum availability, though the FCC has been quick to grant carriers temporary access to additional spectrum resources to support broadband needs during the crisis.