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Is AT&T jockeying for Dish's wireless spectrum?

AT&T asked the FCC not to restrict Dish from transferring or leasing its wireless spectrum, but also to make the satellite provider build a network quickly.

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 appears to be laying groundwork for a potential deal with Dish Network to get its hands on the satellite provider's newly acquired wireless spectrum.

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Last week, AT&T flexed some muscle with the federal government in an attempt to make Dish's wireless spectrum--which it acquired last year for $2.8 billion via deals with two failed wireless companies, DBSD North America and TerreStar Networks--harder for Dish to use and easier for some other company to acquire.

Specifically, AT&T asked the FCC not to place any "restrictions on the transfer and/or leasing" on Dish's wireless spectrum, which it acquired last year via deals with two failed wireless companies, DBSD North America and TerreStar Networks.

AT&T also asked the FCC to impose strict requirements on Dish with respect to how it builds out its planned 4G LTE wireless network. AT&T said Dish should get moving with construction, and that the FCC shouldn't let it wait for specifications for new LTE technology to come out first.

AT&T's missive to the feds came in response to Dish's own request for an FCC waiver. Like LightSquared, another company that also wants to build an LTE network using similar satellite and terrestrial spectrum, Dish has asked the FCC for a waiver to allow it to build a network for terrestrial use only. LightSquared was granted a similar waiver last year.

Several large companies, including AT&T and Verizon Wireless, have opposed LightSquared's waiver and they also oppose the waiver for Dish. Instead of granting waivers, these companies want the FCC to make a formal rule change for this spectrum to allow for terrestrial-only use. AT&T expressed this sentiment in an FCC filing in November.

AT&T hasn't necessarily changed its position on the issue. The company still believes that the FCC needs to change the rules instead of granting waivers, according to a footnote in its most recent filing. But the carrier says that if the FCC decides to proceed with a waiver, it should be consistent with previous waivers. Therefore, it should impose the same restrictions that were included in the LightSquared waiver, which did have build-out requirements.

"AT&T supports build out requirements for 2 GHz comparable to those imposed on LightSquared, which are consistent with performance obligations in other CMRS bands," the company said in the filing.

So what does all this mean? Well, analysts at Credit Suisse think AT&T is appealing to the FCC in order to improve its negotiating leverage with Dish.

Since the U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC put the kibosh on AT&T's merger with T-Mobile USA, the carrier has not been shy about saying that it needs to get more spectrum from somewhere. And some analysts believe that AT&T has been eying Dish as a potential source of additional spectrum.

AT&T has already acquired spectrum from additional sellers, including Qualcomm. And AT&T's biggest competitor, Verizon Wireless, is currently looking to close a $3.6 billion deal to get its hands on wireless spectrum owned by cable operators.

During the company's quarterly conference call last week, CEO Randall Stephenson railed against the FCC for blocking the T-Mobile deal and shutting the company off from accessing more wireless spectrum. And he said he'll be watching the Verizon-cable deal closely. Like the spectrum owned by cable operators, the spectrum owned by Dish isn't being used for a commercial wireless service yet. The FCC has argued that AT&T would not have added new spectrum to the market through its deal with T-Mobile, but instead the company would have simply shifted ownership of licenses already in use by millions of existing customers.

Still, AT&T, if it's truly interested in the Dish spectrum, would certainly like a better negotiating position with Dish.

"From our perspective, AT&T's Jan 26th letter indicates that AT&T is more interested in DISH's S-band spectrum than ever," Stefan Anninger, an analyst with Credit Suisse wrote in a research note. "We suspect that AT&T's interest in seeing the FCC impose Lightsquared-like build-out requirements on Dish has little to do with the public interest, and much more to do with AT&T's interest increasing its negotiating leverage, when it comes to a potential transaction negotiation with Dish."

So far both AT&T and Dish are keeping mum on any talks. But as spectrum becomes more and more of an issue for wireless providers, like AT&T, it wouldn't be surprising if AT&T tried to stack the cards in its favor.