FCC grants first batch of 2.5 GHz licenses – minus T-Mobile

The FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau on Thursday granted the first batch of county-based overlay licenses from the 2.5 GHz auction, but T-Mobile was not among them.

The FCC said it granted 51 of the 68 total long-form applications received from winning bidders in Auction 108, following what it called a “thorough review of the applications and a period of public comment.”

Of the 51 applications granted, 15 applicants obtained small business bidding credits and 23 obtained rural service provider bidding credits. “Staff review of the remaining Auction 108 long-form applications remains ongoing,” the FCC said in a statement.

That’s notable because T-Mobile won the vast majority of the licenses in the 2.5 GHz auction, and it’s nowhere to be found in Thursday’s Public Notice. T-Mobile spent about $304 million to buy 7,156 licenses in the auction.

Asked for comment, the FCC did not say why T-Mobile wasn’t included but pointed out that the staff review remains ongoing. T-Mobile did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last month, AT&T filed a petition asking the FCC to deny T-Mobile’s long-form application from the 2.5 GHz auction or condition its grant on T-Mobile’s divestiture of sufficient mid-band spectrum to avoid “harm to competition and the public interest.”

AT&T, which didn’t compete in the auction, said T-Mobile already owns too much mid-band spectrum and that creates a major imbalance in mid-band assets needed for effective competition in the long term. Under the Communications Act, the FCC can’t grant T-Mobile’s long-form application and unconditionally grant T-Mobile even more spectrum rights with no corresponding divestitures, unless it finds that doing so would promote the public interest, according to AT&T.

In a filing in response, T-Mobile said AT&T’s request boils down to an attempt to rewrite the rules for an auction that already occurred. T-Mobile also called it a delay tactic to prevent T-Mobile from deploying the 2.5 GHz spectrum for its new Home Internet service, particularly in rural areas, where T-Mobile is competing more aggressively than ever against AT&T.

Sasha Javid, COO of BitPath and a former chief data officer with the FCC, said he has no special insights on why the licenses were not yet granted to T-Mobile on Thursday. However, he said, it’s definitely unusual that the FCC decided to issue a Public Notice announcing the grant of 2.5 GHz licenses to auction winners without including T-Mobile, who won 90% of the licenses in the auction.

“At a minimum, it means that the FCC feels that the arguments in AT&T’s Petition to Deny have enough merit that they cannot be dismissed out of hand,” he said. “While I still think it is unlikely, were the FCC to start forcing T-Mobile to divest some of its recently acquired mid-band spectrum licenses, the process could become quite prolonged and a real opportunity for competitors to pick up additional 3.45 and 3.7 GHz licenses cheaply.”

Important spectrum for rural areas

While T-Mobile bought most of the 2.5 GHz licenses that were auctioned in Auction 108, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel noted in her statement that it’s important spectrum, especially for rural America. Auction 108 offered county-sized licenses, mostly in rural areas, which are considered easier for smaller entities to compete for versus larger blocks that big carriers usually prefer.  

Aeronet Wireless Broadband, Broadband One of the Midwest, Carolina West Wireless, Cellular South, East Kentucky Network, Evergy Kansas Central, North American Catholic Educational Programming and United States Cellular (UScellular) are just some of the entities that were granted 2.5 GHz licenses this week. The auction closed at the end of August.

At the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) annual convention in September, incoming CCA President and CEO Tim Donovan pointed out that CCA members won hundreds of licenses in Auction 108, indicating how they’re planning to expand during this phase of continued consolidation.

“What’s the future of smaller carriers? You’re not spending money on auctions for new spectrum if you’re not planning to continue to provide service and to expand that service,” he told Fierce at the time.