Guest Blog by Irena Stevens on Spectrum and Deadlines for DISH and FirstNet/AT&T

In her short five year career since graduating with a Masters Degree in Public Policy from Georgia Tech, Irena Stevens has worked for the Library of Congress Congressional Research Service, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as telecom siting and encroachment analyst, the FCC as policy and engineering intern, the Colorado University Interdisciplinary Telecommunication PhD Program (ITP) as a graduate teaching assistant and PhD candidate, and finally, now, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as a program associate with respect to its National Advanced Spectrum and Communications Testing Network. Here, Irena summarizes frequency spectrum deadlines for DISH and FirstNet/AT&T, and spectrum competition. For a pdf of this material, click this:
Guest COWA Blog-Buildout Requirements-Irena Stevens.

Build-Out Requirements and Competition for Valuable Spectrum

The relentless craving to make more spectrum available for wireless communications will only continue to increase.  Billions in FCC auction proceeds, increasing research funding for spectrum-sharing technologies, and inter-wireless carrier competition demonstrate the contestability for property assignments in the radio frequency domain, and accountability to employ assigned frequencies is climbing accordingly. One example is the pressure on Dish Network Corp to meet their buildout requirements or lose their frequency assignments, another is AT&T’s effort to engage with FirstNet to gain the use of an additional 20 MHz of spectrum.

DISH has buildout requirements to achieve 70% signal coverage and service in each geographic area by 2020 or its licenses will terminate.  It has initiated an effort to build a 5G narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) network that connects consumer devices.  The IoT network is said to be just the first phase undertaken to meet the 2020 requirements before pursuing a more comprehensive and profitable mobile broadband network as 5G standards are solidified in the next few years. Additionally, DISH is also engaged in a time-consuming regulatory proceeding regarding the frequencies it was awarded during the last AWS-3 Incentive Auction though affiliate bidding credits.  These efforts signify DISH’s desire to become a prominent player in the wireless industry in spite of incumbents that stand to benefit from the reverted spectrum and loss of competition if the company fails its buildout requirements.  As the fifth largest holder of spectrum in the U.S., DISH may stand a better chance to become the country’s fourth wireless carrier if the Sprint/T-Mobile merger passes regulatory review.

In a similar manner, AT&T is getting spectrum where it can find it.  The company is the official vendor for the First Emergency Responders Network (FirstNet), allowing it the use of 20 MHz of Band 14 low-band spectrum and along with the responsibility to build, operate, and maintain the network.  The spectrum may be used for AT&T’s commercial customers so long as, in times of emergency, those users can be pre-empted and the capacity prioritized to first responders.  Since utilization is expected to be relatively low outside of times of emergency, AT&T greatly benefits its commercial wireless customers with the additional high-value spectrum.  Nevertheless, it is also obligated to challenging rural deployment requirements – AT&T must build out coverage to 20% in the first year and 100% by the fifth year. Since rural deployment is traditionally slow, consequences for delays remain to be seen.

FCC efforts to open up high-frequency spectrum for wireless commercial use is a reflection of increasing perceived scarcity of property rights within the radio frequency domain.  Nevertheless, long-range low and mid-band frequencies will continue to be exceptionally valuable for wireless communications.  The contention for these airwaves is likely to increase the stringency of buildout requirements and timelines.  Companies like DISH and AT&T will increasingly be held to a higher standard of commitment in fulfilling their obligations as custodians of highly demanded frequencies. The degree to which the FCC is willing to terminate and revoke licenses for these valuable frequencies will serve as an expression of competition within the wireless market.

By Irena Stevens, National Advanced Spectrum and Communications Testing Network (NASCTN) PREP Program Associate at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Boulder, Colorado.


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