T-Mobile: We'll have handsets ready to leverage incentive auction spectrum in 2017

T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS) executives said last week that they believe they'll be able to deploy some of the 600 MHz spectrum they expect to pocket during this year's auction by the end of 2017. And CFO Braxton Carter told investors today that the carrier will also have handsets ready to support those airwaves.

Carter pointed to T-Mobile's $2.4 billion deal to buy 700 MHz A Block spectrum from Verizon (NYSE:VZ) two years ago, saying the nation's third-largest carrier was able to clear those airwaves within a year despite concerns over interference with some broadcasters' spectrum.

"We executed an extremely efficient rollup of that 700 MHz spectrum," Carter said during an investor conference this morning. "We started calling these broadcasters and they go, 'Wow, no one's ever called us before. You're the first to call. Of course we'd like to work with you.' And we effectively cleared all that spectrum in a one-year period and rapidly deployed it. So I think we've demonstrated that we can do it; we've demonstrated that working with the OEMs both on the infrastructure side and the handset side that we can drive the ecosystem really quickly."

And both infrastructure vendors and handset manufacturers are already making plans to capitalize on the 600 MHz spectrum, Carter said.

The FCC last month announced an initial spectrum clearing target of 126 MHz for the 600 MHz incentive auction, marking the maximum amount the Commission had hoped to offer. The spectrum comes from TV broadcasters willing to give it up for a price, and some of it will eventually be bid on by wireless service providers and others during a "forward auction" later this year.

Once the forward auction is complete -- a process that likely will take a few weeks but could conceivably extend into 2017 -- the spectrum will have to be repacked, making available for mobile network operators while the TV broadcasters are moved to other channels. The FCC has laid out a 39-month timeframe for repacking, although that schedule has come under fire from the National Association of Broadcasters and others who claim it doesn't give broadcasters enough time to move to other airwaves.

Carter acknowledged the repacking challenge but said the airwaves could still be leveraged quickly in rural areas and other regions "where we need it from a geographic expansion standpoint." That strategy would fit with T-Mobile's ongoing effort to build out its retail presence in less-populated areas where it has recently expanded its network.

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