AT&T Whines About Spectrum Hoarding Now That T-Mobile Is Doing It

from the do-as-I-say dept

Economists predicted the T-Mobile merger would result in a lot of layoffs, something that’s been proven true so far. Those same economists also predicted that the merger will also inevitably result in higher prices for consumers, though that’s expected to take a few years as investors pressure the three remaining companies to take advantage of reduced competition.

One good thing about the merger for T-Mobile and its subscribers is that it did provide T-Mobile with a whole lot of spectrum, allowing the company to dramatically boost overall network capacity. That has quickly resulted in T-Mobile customers seeing some significant speed increases across the T-Mobile network.

But global telecom consolidation history (see Ireland, Canada, and large chunks of Europe) suggests we’re still in the “trying to justify mindless consolidation” of the program, and not yet to the “let’s now exploit the reduction in total competitors by easing off price competition and promotions” part of the program. But the price hikes will come. It’s like the physics of river water filling every available crack. If there’s a reduction in competition to exploit, Wall Street demands it be exploited, sooner or later. Market health or consumer welfare don’t enter into the equation for a fleeting second.

As T-Mobile has grown fatter and more powerful, it’s increasingly been criticized for acting much like the wireless competitors it once made fun of as establishment bullies. T-Mobile’s massive trove of spectrum has gotten so fat it’s now alarming AT&T, a company with a multi-decade history of squatting on spectrum to limit competitors, and exploiting government auctions generally designed to give preference to the biggest, wealthiest competitors. Now that somebody is doing something AT&T used to be able to do without consequence, it’s amusingly and suddenly a problem:

“In a blog post Wednesday, AT&T EVP of Federal Regulatory Relations Joan Marsh explained that spectrum screens don?t limit how much spectrum a company can hold, but do provide a way to help the FCC identify spectrum purchases that could hurt competition.”

Hey guys…AT&T is worried about wireless competition!

AT&T’s policy blog is always a great source of entertaining hypocrisy, and almost always involves AT&T complaining about something it has done for years. In the case of spectrum, people have been calling for “use it or lose it” requirements for literally decades as a way to prevent dominant carriers from hoarding spectrum they don’t really use, thereby boxing competitors out of the market. The U.S. government has traditionally ignored those requests, as made evident by Dish’s ongoing hoarding of massive troves of wireless spectrum that somehow, mysteriously, never quite ends up with a working wireless network.

There are FCC “spectrum screens” for low and high band spectrum designed to limit how much spectrum a company can hold in a given geographical region, but as you can tell from a heavily consolidated wireless industry they’ve never been all that effective or consistently enforced. For years AT&T was a primary beneficiary of this dysfunction, but now that T-Mobile is doing it, it’s suddenly bad:

“Specifically, AT&T wants the regulator to adopt a mid-band screen for all future spectrum acquisitions between 2.5 GHz and 6 GHz ? although notably not any spectrum obtained at Auction 110 (the next U.S. mid-band auction, with spectrum between 3.45-3.55 GHz) because rules were already finalized. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Dish have all applied to participate.”

In short T-Mobile already holds a lot of valuable middle band spectrum, so AT&T wants a middle band spectrum screen to ensure competitors aren’t boxed out. And it’s not a particularly bad idea. But it’s still hard to not appreciate the irony of AT&T only appreciating the value of competent regulatory oversight and competition policy now that the shoe is on the other foot. Or the fact AT&T just spent five years lobbying relentlessly to ensure the FCC was as toothless as possible. AT&T’s fine with the “free market” magically sorting everything out until suddenly it is the one that requires a more level, regulatory mandated playing field.

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Companies: at&t

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