T-Mobile steers 3.45 GHz tests to Seattle area

T-Mobile told the FCC last week that it wants to modify its experimental authorization so that it can continue to conduct 3.45 GHz tests in the Seattle area, but it’s no longer interested in doing 3.45 GHz tests in the Dallas, New York City or Kansas City, Missouri, markets where it was previously authorized.

The 3.45 GHz auction closed at the end of 2021 after grossing $21.8 billion. AT&T was the big winner in that auction, taking home 1,624 licenses in 406 licenses areas known as Partial Economic Areas (PEAs). T-Mobile won 199 licenses in 79 PEAs.

“Since the grant of its application, T-Mobile discovered that its business needs no longer require it to conduct testing using the 3.45 GHz band at all of the sites authorized in January,” the operator told the agency late last month.  

In a previous filing, T-Mobile explained that unlike the other markets covered by its application, T-Mobile is not licensed to operate in the 3.45 GHz band in Seattle, where it wants to continue testing because its headquarters and testing lab are there. Plus, it’s possible that at some point in the future, it could decide to acquire spectrum on the secondary market in Seattle.

Plans call for using about nine base stations from Nokia and 15 handsets from various manufacturers.

“Grant of this request would serve the public interest because it would allow T-Mobile to continue experimenting as described in its initial application while reducing the geographic footprint of its experimental operations to only those areas required for testing,” T-Mobile stated.

A T-Mobile spokesperson said they had nothing further to say about the FCC filing. “We continuously amend/modify various STAs,” he said.  

The filing says that no other operators using 3.45 GHz spectrum in the Seattle area will be adversely affected. Neither Whitewater Wireless, which holds the C block license, nor AT&T, which holds the D block license, has objected to T-Mobile’s proposed testing, which it was authorized to start conducting in January, the filing states.

T-Mobile’s proposed experimental operations in Seattle will overlap with the Bremerton, Washington, area where federal users remain in the 3.45 GHz band, but they will not impact the specific census tracts within Bremerton where the Department of Defense (DoD) has indicated its operations will occur, according to T-Mobile. Bremerton is home to the Naval Base Kitsap.

Waiting game

It makes sense for T-Mobile to confine its tests to the Seattle area since that’s where its headquarters, lab and innovation center facilities are located, said 556 Ventures analyst Bill Ho.

The bulk of T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum is in the 2.5 GHz band. The “un-carrier” is still waiting to get its hands on the 2.5 GHz spectrum that it won in the auction that ended in the summer of 2022. That’s been held up because FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the licenses can’t be awarded until the FCC gets its auction authority reinstated, and that’s tied up in Congress.

That’s also giving the FCC more time to weigh AT&T’s complaints that T-Mobile has garnered too much mid-band spectrum.

“It is possible that the FCC staff is still evaluating AT&T’s petition requesting the FCC apply a spectrum screen to evaluate whether T-Mobile has too much mid-band spectrum,” wrote New Street Research analyst Blair Levin in a May 1 report for investors. “While we don’t think AT&T is likely to prevail, we think the staff is taking the petition seriously and may welcome the extra time to evaluate the concerns before deciding the issue and issuing the licenses.”

From a big picture standpoint, AT&T’s raising of the spectrum screen can be seen as a competitive move as both Verizon and AT&T are behind the 5G mid-band deployment curve, Ho said. “You can view that as a competitive measure to kind of slow them down as well,” he said. “If it’s there and they raise it as a legitimate issue, then obviously they’ll play that card.”