T-Mobile seeks access to more 2.5 GHz spectrum

T-Mobile has been laser-focused on deploying 5G using the boatload of spectrum it obtained in the Sprint merger, but it’s not enough. There’s even more 2.5 GHz spectrum up for grabs, and T-Mobile wants a piece of it.

On the FCC’s open meeting agenda for Wednesday is an item to consider a Public Notice that would seek comment on bidding procedures for Auction 108, which would put up for auction some 2.5 GHz spectrum that was set aside for educational institutions three decades ago.

T-Mobile’s VP of Government Affairs, Technology and Engineering Policy, Steve Sharkey, spoke by phone with Commissioner Nathan Simington’s legal advisor last week, according to an ex parte filing. Similar to previous conversations, Sharkey lobbied for the agency to move forward with a Public Notice soliciting comments on the procedures for conducting a 2.5 GHz auction.

He explained that since the closing of its merger with Sprint, T-Mobile has been rapidly rolling out 2.5 GHz spectrum as part of its nationwide network and that access to additional 2.5 GHz spectrum will help deliver 5G services to even more Americans. Indeed, T-Mobile’s “Ultra Capacity 5G,” which uses mid- and high-band spectrum, now covers a population of 106 million, with designs to reach 200 million by the end of 2021.

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T-Mobile is pressing the FCC to conduct a 2.5 GHz auction using a simultaneous multi-round (SMR) format that would offer license-by-license bidding. The “un-carrier” argues that such an auction format would promote competitive bidding, including by smaller entities.

“As the commission has observed, an SMR auction is more appropriate than a clock auction when blocks in a band are less uniform/generic within a market, as they are here,” T-Mobile told the agency. It also has called for the spectrum to be auctioned based on counties.

Some stakeholders are opposed to the FCC moving forward with a public comment notice. The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition last year noted that when the FCC voted to move ahead with the 2.5 GHz proceeding, it was based on a 3-2 vote along party lines, and they wanted the agency to wait until after the transition to the Biden administration was complete.

It’s similar to the argument put forth by Select Spectrum, which describes itself as a licensed spectrum brokerage that has supported transactions in the secondary market for over a decade. The company also told the FCC in a filing last year that it believes T-Mobile will seek to outbid smaller operators simply to gain ownership of the spectrum while having no intention of deploying the spectrum in the near term, especially in more rural markets.

Select Spectrum urged the commission to adopt a single round, sealed bid approach to increase the chances of diverse participation in an auction. “Smaller bidders can pick a price near what each license is worth to them, and then know that they won’t be stretched through multiple rounds only to lose to a multinational carrier with a significant advantage due to its holding of encumbering licenses,” Select Spectrum told the commission. “T-Mobile will not know in advance where they face competition and will be forced with a choice of bidding higher on a wide scale (good for the Treasury), or risking losing many licenses to smaller operators.”

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents smaller WISPs across the United States, also wants to see a single-round, sealed bid auction design. The group said the demand for fixed broadband capacity and coverage driven by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is leading to even more interest on the part of WISPs to gain access to more mid-band spectrum. WISPA also said the 2.5 GHz band is ill-suited for the type of SMR auction that T-Mobile is pitching.