AT&T CEO says spectrum issues are holding back ubiquitous broadband

AT&T CEO John Stankey spoke at a Semafor event yesterday to discuss barriers to greater adoption of broadband in the U.S. And the conversation ended up focusing heavily on spectrum.

“You want more competition and resiliency in broadband in the United States, you need deep spectrum,” he said. “The United States is not in an enviable position right now for the next 10 years relative to some other developed nations.”

He then proceeded to touch on a lot of hot buttons in the wireless industry.

He noted that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t even have its authority to auction spectrum right now.

“We have an FCC which actually can’t run an auction, which is kind of unfathomable,” he said. “We first have to get back to a point where we have an agency that can auction spectrum or license some spectrum to put it into use.”

His reference to the FCC’s ability to “license some spectrum to put it into use” was probably referring to the fact that T-Mobile purchased $304 million worth of 2.5 GHz spectrum in Auction 108 last summer. But because of the FCC’s lapse in auction authority, the agency has not been able to process those licenses so that T-Mobile can deploy the spectrum in its network.

Next, Stankey alluded to the fact that the Department of Defense (DoD) controls a lot of spectrum in the U.S., and the DoD has worked with the FCC on some spectrum sharing initiatives. Most notably, the DoD is involved with CBRS spectrum sharing, where providers can use the CBRS spectrum, but the DoD has priority usage if necessary.

“The Defense Department needs to continue to have access to the spectrum they need to protect the country,” said Stankey. “I think we’ve demonstrated in some of the things we’ve been doing with shared spectrum right now that we can coordinate and do some things effectively with the Defense Department.”

But spectrum sharing is a contentious issue is the U.S. wireless community. 

CBRS opponents, led by CTIA, insist that CBRS remains an unproven experiment in spectrum sharing, with constraints like low power levels that make it impossible to provide broad coverage.

For its part, AT&T did not bid for CBRS spectrum in Auction 105, which was held in 2020. And while Stankey’s comments yesterday touched on spectrum sharing, AT&T has not publicly taken a stance on the issue.

Stankey also mentioned licensed spectrum versus unlicensed spectrum. In the U.S. providers use unlicensed spectrum in the CBRS band and for Wi-Fi. The FCC has given a big swath of the 6 GHz band to unlicensed for Wi-Fi. Also, some smaller wireless internet service providers (WISPS) use unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band to provide fixed wireless access.

“We have a ratio of unlicensed spectrum to licensed spectrum in this country, which is not seen in other developed nations,” he said. “The question is: is all that unlicensed spectrum carrying workloads? Is it carrying traffic? Is it driving economic value? Is it restricting the amount of investment that might go into building those deep, dense, resilient networks that we all need? Are we getting the most out of the assets we put in place?”

Holistic plan

Yesterday, Stankey called for something that many in the wireless industry have been clamoring for — a holistic national spectrum plan.

“We need to step back and ask ourselves what do we want to do for the next 10 years?” he said. “I think there’s a holistic look that needs to be done. When you have a scare resource like this you should be looking at every possible approach to it. But we really do not have what I think is an industry and regulatory-centered plan right now that everybody can get behind.”