There are very few things bitter rivals Verizon and AT&T have historically been able to agree on, but believe it or not, the two cellular giants are essentially banding together against quite possibly the greatest threat their wireless industry duopoly has ever faced.
T-Mobile, which was once the nation’s distant fourth-largest wireless service provider, has already managed to surpass AT&T’s subscriber numbers shortly after being allowed to join forces with Sprint, setting its sights now on trumping Verizon as well. While that’s unlikely to actually happen anytime soon, Big Red’s fears that Magenta will eventually end up dominating the US cellular landscape are justified by the “Un-carrier’s” early lead in the 5G development field.
It’s no longer a big secret that T-Mo’s “nationwide” low-band 5G network has given the operator a huge advantage over the competition in terms of coverage. Said advantage is being consolidated and expanded with the help of Sprint’s valuable mid-band spectrum and major breakthroughs like a recent standalone 5G rollout, which is why Verizon and AT&T are getting desperate, stopping at nothing to try to hinder T-Mobile’s technological advances.
The enemy of my enemy
As if T-Mobile didn’t already own a sufficient amount of low and mid-band spectrum after spending close to $8 billion in a 600MHz auction back in 2017 and going the extra mile to acquire Sprint, the Deutsche Telekom-owned operator signed a bunch of additional lease agreements with companies as diverse as Dish, Comcast, Columbia Capital, Omega, Bluewater, Channel 51, and LB License Co. earlier this year.
While some of these deals were temporary, granting T-Mo access to the necessary airwaves to handle traffic spikes generated at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a number of leases were extended for up to three years, which certainly didn’t make Verizon and AT&T happy.
Big Red was the first of the two major T-Mobile rivals to take a stand against a couple of lease arrangements in particular, asking for the FCC’s intervention in preventing the “Un-carrier” from further harming healthy industry competition a few weeks ago.
Of course, it seems unlikely that the Federal Communications Commission will reconsider its stance after already green-lighting T-Mo’s long-term partnerships with Channel 51 and LB License Co. (aka Columbia Capital), but that’s not stopping AT&T from piling on the pressure by filing formal comments in support of Verizon’s original petition.
Needless to point out that it’s pretty unusual to see these two helping each other out, and for the most part, echoing one another’s arguments. But that’s how big of a threat T-Mobile has become.
There’s much more at stake here
While both Verizon and AT&T seem to be primarily focusing on the unfair advantage T-Mobile has been allowed to gain as a result of its Sprint acquisition and multiple spectrum lease agreements signed in recent months, the actual main topic of the two complaints is something else entirely.
Although T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert has recently expressed a cautious view in regards to the auction set to kick off in December, stressing his company’s “position of strength” in the market and “tradition of being disciplined” when it comes to highly coveted spectrum, Verizon and AT&T fear one of two things will happen.
Namely, Magenta could add even more spectrum to its already impressive 5G war chest at the end of the auction or simply try to get Verizon and AT&T to outspend on technology they badly need to stay become competitive without actually intending to win more spectrum.
This neat chart is used by AT&T to highlight T-Mobile’s low and mid-band spectrum lead
In case you’re wondering, T-Mobile’s current low and mid-band properties exceed Verizon and AT&T’s combined total by a pretty significant margin while also topping a so-called “spectrum screen” created by the Federal Communications Commission to prevent these types of situations and controversies. Ironically, the “Un-carrier” supported enforcing restrictions on the amount of spectrum holdings one operator could aggregate in the not-so-distant past, but at the same time, Verizon was not much of a proponent of strictly applying these rules on a number of occasions either.
For its part, the FCC reportedly plans to continue using the spectrum screen on a “case-by-case basis”, which means T-Mobile may well be able to further consolidate its 5G infrastructure lead in the future.