Sprint cool to new spectrum auctions

Carrier sympathetic to broadcasters, not rivals AT&T and Verizon

CHICAGO -- While Sprint and AT&T have been clashing for months over the latter's proposed merger with T-Mobile, they can surely still agree on the value of spectrum auctions, right?

Well, not necessarily. While speaking during a panel discussion at 4G World Monday, Sprint Director of Government Affairs Trey Hanbury downplayed the need for new spectrum auctions that could help its rivals acquire even more prime spectrum for deploying LTE services. Instead he took an indirect dig at rival AT&T, which has come under criticism from Sprint and other opponents of the T-Mobile merger for not efficiently using the spectrum it already has licensed.

"There's no impending [spectrum] crisis," Hanbury said. "If there's any crisis, it's a spectrum planning crisis."

BACKGROUND: AT&T pleads spectrum poverty despite vast holdings

Hanbury also said that "every carrier has a responsibility to use the spectrum they have and to be good stewards of the spectrum they have, otherwise it's difficult for carriers to lobby for more."

Hanbury said that while Sprint supported incentive spectrum auctions, he thought that the FCC and policymakers should also be looking at how to carry out auctions in ways that will maintain competitive balance in the wireless industry. In the 2008 auction of the 700MHz band, AT&T and Verizon gobbled up spectrum that they're now using for their LTE networks (their combined bids of $16 billion accounted for more than 80% of the $19.6 billion in total bids).

Panelist Joan Marsh, who serves as AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, unsurprisingly didn't share Hanbury's perspective on spectrum management and said that the FCC was right to insist that more spectrum be made available for auction in the near future. In particular, Marsh said that AT&T had made significant investments in its nationwide Wi-Fi hotspot program, which now contains an estimated 30,000 hotspots. Marsh also noted that the political process in Washington, D.C., has traditionally moved slowly on spectrum issues and she said that it was important to start looking at potential mobile data spectrum right now to avoid hitting a shortage in coming years.

"Wi-Fi can work great when you're in your hotel room, but when you leave the hotel to go to dinner that Wi-Fi solution will not be there for you," she said. "At the end of the day the industry will need more spectrum."

Marsh found a sympathetic voice in a subsequent panel on reallocating the 2GHz band for mobile broadband use, as Verizon Spectrum Policy Director Donald Brittingham said there was no question that the industry would need more spectrum in the near future to meet the demand for mobile data.

"We don't need more spectrum tomorrow or next year but we agree that we need more spectrum in the long term," he said. "If you don't believe me, ask the president, ask Congress, ask the FCC or the tens of thousands of police officers who want more spectrum for a public safety broadband network."

Although AT&T has the most spectrum of any single U.S. carrier, the company has maintained that its current spectrum holdings lack 20MHz of contiguous unused spectrum that it needs to deploy a nationwide LTE network. Earlier this year AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said his company needed to purchase T-Mobile to have enough "spectrum depth" to launch its upcoming 4G LTE network in many rural areas in the United States, such as parts of West Virginia.

Learn more about this topic

AT&T pleads spectrum poverty despite vast holdings 

Verizon gobbles up spectrum in the 700MHz auction 

AT&T-T-Mobile deal shows the importance of spectrum

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