AT&T's Chief Financial Officer, John Stephens, explained yesterday at the Oppenheimer Annual Technology, Internet & Communications Conference that the carrier has 40 MHz of unused spectrum, which he believes gives the business a "unique" position. AT&T owns 140 MHz of the airwaves but is currently only using 100 MHz. Stephens' observations are that the carrier has yet to deploy, in any meaningful way, it's AWS-3 (Advanced Wireless Services, which consists of LTE service at the 1,700 and 2,100 MHz frequencies, representing LTE Band 4) and WCS (Wireless Communications Service, LTE spectrum at the 2,300 MHz point).
Stephens went on to discuss AT&T's 2G spectrum, where the carrier has plans to shut down it's 2G network by the end of the year and repurpose this spectrum for newer generation network technologies. This spectrum will initially be redeployed for AT&T's 3G network. AT&T has plans to upgrade this 3G spectrum to 4G LTE and subsequently to 5G. Stephens explains that AT&T is building out the new AWS-3 and WCS spectrum is a cheaper way to build out network capacity compared with the traditional way of densifying a cellular network by building a combination of new macro and small cell sites. On the subject of network capacity, Stephens explained that AT&T is "very comfortable." America's second largest carrier has a five year spectrum plan that is "very, very effective and efficient" and "it gives us a unique advantage."
Carriers upgrading spectrum to newer networking technologies is nothing new but in the case of AT&T, that the company is currently operating with 100 MHz out of 140 MHz is interesting. AT&T competitors, Sprint, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, are all working hard to reinvest and upgrade their own networks. Each carrier appears to be following a slightly different network plan – Sprint, relegated to be America's smallest national carrier, is working to deploy its high frequency 2,500 MHz spectrum via a new, smarter way of building out a network. Verizon is utilizing small cells and traditional network densification technologies to improve coverage while T-Mobile is increasing coverage using its newly acquired 700 MHz spectrum. All of these carriers – with Sprint as the odd one out – are also bidding in the FCC's 600 MHz spectrum auction, which is not expected to conclude until next year.