Spectrum Winners and Losers

AT&T posted a short statement on their public policy blog called ‘Inconvenient Facts and the FCC’s Flawed Spectrum Screen’. In that blog post they complained that the FCC had failed to apply the spectrum screen to Softbank’s acquisition of Sprint and Sprint’s acquisition of the rest of Clearwire. And AT&T is right. The FCC has been incredibly inconsistent in the way it looks at wireless acquisition and mergers.

So what is the spectrum screen? The spectrum screen is a set of internal rules at the FCC that they use to determine if any wireless carrier owns too much spectrum in a given market. Historically the FCC had a generic rule that said that no one company could own more than one-third of the spectrum usable for wireless in a given geographic area. This spectrum screen was applied both to attempts of wireless carriers to buy new spectrum or to mergers between wireless carriers.

The FCC has been very inconsistent in the way they apply the existing screen. Last September they announced that they were going to look at the way the spectrum screen ought to work. But meanwhile, during the last year the screen has been applied (or ignored) in the following ways:

  • When the FCC looked at the proposed AT&T / T-Mobile merger they rejected the merger in part because they said that the acquisition would fail the screen test in 274 CMAs that covered 71 of the top 100 markets and 66% of the US population. However, the FCC fudged the spectrum screen in coming up with those numbers. At that time the spectrum screen set the maximum amount that any one carrier could own in one market at 95 MHz, which was one-third of the spectrum available for wireless carriers. However, in coming up with their conclusion the FCC lowered that threshold to 90 MHz in judging the merger. That might not sound like a big difference, but it lowered the number of markets affected by the merger by 84 and reduced the overall problem to less than 50% of the top 100 markets and 50% of the US population. That is still a lot of places where the proposed merger would have failed the spectrum screen, but AT&T had announced plans to divest of bandwidth as needed to meet the FCC test. The FCC made this change in the spectrum screen without any public input.
  • When Verizon acquired spectrum in the 1.7 to 2.1 GHz band the FCC applied this fully to their spectrum screen band. They did the same when AT&T acquired 2.3 GHz spectrum.
  • And then there is the recently announced approval for Softbank to acquire Sprint and Clearwire spectrum. The Clearwire spectrum at 2.5 GHz is right next to the 2.3 GHz spectrum recently acquired by AT&T. While the FCC fully counted the spectrum AT&T purchased against the spectrum screen, in the Softbank acquisition the FCC counted only 55.5 MHz of the Clearwire spectrum against the new Softbank spectrum screen even though there is an average of 140 MHz available in most of the Softbank markets.

So AT&T has a legitimate gripe. The FCC seems to apply the spectrum screen to get the results they want. It looks a lot more like the FCC is picking market winners and losers than they are protecting the public. The spectrum screen was established in the first place to promote competition. The FCC wanted to make sure that a given carrier did not get so much spectrum in a major market that they could effectively close out competition. They also didn’t want carriers to be able to hoard spectrum for future use. But the FCC no longer seems to be using market protection as the criteria of deciding who can and cannot merge.

It’s clear that the FCC didn’t want AT&T and T-Mobile to merge. They thought that it was bad for competition to lose one of the major carriers in the country. But it was wrong for them to fudge the spectrum screen as a way to justify their position rather than just oppose the merger on pure competitive grounds.

And in the case of Softbank they are going in the opposite direction. They obviously want a new competitor to AT&T and Verizon and they are ignoring the spectrum screen to make sure that happens.

Why does all of this matter? Like anything else it’s a matter of money. Wireless carriers have two ways that they can address congested conditions. They can just add more cell sites, closer and closer to the old ones. In effect spectrum is reusable and each new cell site uses the original spectrum freshly. The other solution is to just layer on a new spectrum in a crowded area so that no new cell sites need to be constructed. That is much cheaper than building cell sites, and so carriers want more and different spectrum in major markets to meet the seemingly insatiable and rapidly growing demand for mobile data.

The issue is going to get a lot worse. President Obama announced a new policy that will release up to 500 MHz of new spectrum for wireless use over the next five years. So there is going to be a new land grab by all of the carriers and the FCC needs to get ready.

It just seems to me like the FCC needs to toss out the spectrum screen and come up with a new way to determine the right amount of competition. In the two biggest merger cases before them in the last few years they blatantly ignored their own spectrum screen rules to get the result they wanted. That is evidence enough that we need to stop having the fiction of a spectrum screen. If the FCC wants to be in the game of picking market winners and losers they just need to be upfront about it.

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