AT&T pushes FCC for mid-band spectrum screen

AT&T is urging the Federal Communications Commission to implement a spectrum screen for mid-band frequencies, in part citing T-Mobile’s large holdings.

In a blog post Wednesday, AT&T EVP of Federal Regulatory Relations Joan Marsh explained that spectrum screens don’t limit how much spectrum a company can hold, but do provide a way to help the FCC identify spectrum purchases that could hurt competition.

There are already more granular spectrum screens in place for both low- and high-band spectrum, the post noted. And “with 5G as the focus of investment and competition, it is clear that large blocks of mid-band spectrum are critical to 5G success,” wrote Marsh. “To the extent that such blocks become unduly concentrated in the hands of one or two licensees, 5G competition is likely to falter.”

In merging with Sprint, T-Mobile amassed a large trove of 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum (about 160 MHz on average in the top 100 markets) and has been viewed as having a head-start in mid-band 5G. Both AT&T and Verizon picked up key mid-band frequencies as the top two winners in the FCC’s C-band auction. T-Mobile also participated as the third biggest spender – but scooped up far less C-band.

In a petition (PDF) filed September 1 asking the FCC for a rulemaking to establish a mid-band spectrum screen, AT&T said major providers have spectrum assets to compete near-term but pointed an already “substantial imbalance” in mid-band holdings of major 5G carriers.

“T-Mobile holds a vast percentage of such spectrum because, over the years, its corporate predecessors Sprint and Clearwire quietly accumulated enormous EBS/BRS assets in the 2.5 GHz band. They did so outside of any auction context and downplayed that band’s utility to keep it out of the spectrum screen,” the filing states.

RELATED: FCC starts moving on unique 2.5 GHz auction, license areas

Specifically, AT&T wants the regulator to adopt a mid-band screen for all future spectrum acquisitions between 2.5 GHz and 6 GHz – although notably not any spectrum obtained at Auction 110 (the next U.S. mid-band auction, with spectrum between 3.45-3.55 GHz) because rules were already finalized. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Dish have all applied to participate.

“We believe that such a tool would assist the Commission in identifying spectrum aggregations that may cause competitive harm by allowing a licensee to hold so much mid-band spectrum in a given market that it becomes impossible for others to compete effectively,” Marsh wrote her Wednesday blog.

For example, if a spectrum buy means a single party would hold more than a third of the frequencies in question in a particular market, the spectrum screen would be triggered – prompting the FCC to take a closer look into whether it could negatively impact competition.

“Such rules are needed to ensure that every provider has a fair and efficient opportunity to acquire the mid-band spectrum it needs to provide consumers with high-quality 5G services, free from anticompetitive foreclosure strategies,” AT&T said in its petition.

RELATED: Verizon tries to prevent T-Mobile from getting more 600 MHz spectrum

AT&T also says the risk of anticompetitive outcomes are “far greater for mid-band spectrum than it was for low- and high-band spectrum holdings when the Commission imposed individualized screens for them,” in part citing wide contiguous swaths better for 5G and better propagation characteristics than millimeter wave.   

It’s requesting an enhanced FCC review for any spectrum acquisitions that would mean a service provider has more than one-third of unpaired mid-band.

RELATED: AT&T joins Verizon in making hay over T-Mobile’s 5G spectrum cache

It’s not the first time AT&T or Verizon have drawn attention to T-Mobile’s growing spectrum arsenal.

Verizon already tried to stop T-Mobile from getting its hands on more low-band 600 MHz spectrum, asking the FCC last year to reconsider proposed lease agreements that the carrier argued would exacerbate markets where T-Mobile already exceeded the FCC spectrum screen.

Also related to T-Mobile’s aggregation of spectrum, AT&T in September 2020 called on the FCC to change its review process and evaluate how the agency approaches the spectrum screen. In a blog post that month, Marsh wrote that T-Mobile in the past was one of the most vocal about aggressively applying spectrum screens to prevent spectrum buys.