AT&T execs are confident about spectrum position

Executives at investor conference today say company has regrouped since losing its bid to buy T-Mobile last year and can keep up with wireless spectrum demands now and in the future.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read
AT&T lays out its plan for securing wireless spectrum over the next several years. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

NEW YORK -- AT&T is in a much better place when it comes to spectrum today than it was at the end of 2011, the company said during an investor meeting today. And the company is confident is has the resources to make a big push to compete with its next generation 4G LTE market.

AT&T announced today that it plans to spend $14 billion to build out its wireless and wireline networks, an effort that includes bringing its 4G LTE network to 300 million potential U.S. customers.

John Stankey, AT&T's chief strategy officer, told investors and analysts here that AT&T is confident about its spectrum position for the next two years. But he said that the Federal Communications Commission needs to move quickly to free up additional wireless spectrum for its long-term growth.

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"Even under ideal circumstances, getting new spectrum on the market in the next five to seven years is aggressive," Stankey said. "But what we do know is that AT&T is well-positioned now."

AT&T, like every other wireless carrier in the market today, is in need of additional wireless spectrum to keep up with growth in its data network. And the company is likely to need even more as it expands its 4G LTE network. In 2011, AT&T made a bid to buy T-Mobile USA in a deal worth $39 billion. The carrier said the T-Mobile acquisition was all about spectrum and giving AT&T additional spectrum holdings to keep up with network demands. But regulators didn't buy this argument and they rejected the deal, leaving AT&T scrambling to find other spectrum.

Stankey said the company was forced to "chart a new path" and has developed a plan for acquiring additional spectrum to achieve its goal of bringing 4G LTE to 300 million by the end of 2014.

The key to this strategy has been the company's efforts to acquire new spectrum from other companies. This year alone the company has entered into 40 separate deals. Some of these deals have already been approved by regulators and others are still pending approval. But Stankey said he is confident that regulators will approve these other deals soon.

"In the near term we've taken an opportunistic approach," Stankey said. "These deals give us confidence that we can meet our LTE objectives for next two years and they will allow us to deliver competitive performance."

The key to the strategy is to acquire enough spectrum in the bands the company is already using for its 4G LTE network to satisfy growth demands for the next two to four years.

Stankey also said that the company plans to put its WCS spectrum to use for LTE. AT&T was unable to use this spectrum earlier because there were concerns it would interfere with satellite radio service from Sirius XM. But last month, the FCC approved an agreement between AT&T and Sirius to limit the use of the spectrum in order to mitigate interference.

But Stankey said that in the long term, AT&T will still need more spectrum. And he urged the FCC to free up additional spectrum for auction as soon as possible.

"Over the long term, we'll look to FCC to move expeditiously to locate, clear, and auction new spectrum," he said. "In the meantime, our research organization has to work independently to improve spectral efficiency."

As part of that plan, John Donovan, head of AT&T's technology and network operations, said the company is deploying more cell sites and making its network more dense in terms of the radios serving a particular area. He said over the next three years, the company plans to be more aggressive in deploying "small cell" technologies that will allow the company to improve efficiency and improve its coverage.

The plan is to deploy 10,000 new macro sites that will be used to cover wider areas of coverage. But Donovan also said the company is working to deploy more than 1,000 distributed antenna and more than 40,000 small cell sites. The company will first start by adding small cells for using the UMTS and HSPA+ network technologies. The company is in field deployments with these new small cells now and will build out full deployments next year.

Donovan also said the company has invested more than $800 million in hardening its wireless network adding batteries and fixed and portable power to its cell sites that should help the company's network stay up during disasters and other times of stress.