After AT&T’s notice to the FCC that it is withdrawing its T-Mobile merger application, attention is now turning to AT&T’s alternatives for acquiring more spectrum. The FCC’s approval of the Qualcomm spectrum purchase puts the focus squarely on DISH’s 700MHz E block holdings, which would bring the Qualcomm spectrum up to a national 12MHz unpaired block. However, AT&T also needs a separate clean block of paired spectrum to implement its planned Carrier Aggregation Technology (as part of an LTE Advanced network). The original intention was to use AT&T’s AWS-1 spectrum holdings for this purpose, but AT&T would be required to give up the majority of its AWS-1 holdings (1.5B MHzPOPs out of ~2.5B MHzPOPs) as part of the break fee for the TMO merger agreement. As a result, AT&T will also now have to look for another clean block of spectrum away from the 700MHz band to enable deployment of the Qualcomm spectrum. Though this could in theory be done in the 850MHz band, it may be hard for AT&T to put together enough clean contiguous spectrum (2x10MHz?) for a near term LTE Advanced deployment, especially if the FCC’s conditions on the Qualcomm purchase mandate a rapid buildout of the spectrum.
In this context I think a much bigger deal with DISH is the only logical outcome, and that will mean either a companion purchase of DISH’s 2GHz spectrum holdings (DBSD/TerreStar) or even a takeover of DISH itself (which could complement AT&T’s U-verse service and satisfy Randall Stephenson’s ambitions to complete a major deal). Though getting FCC approval for an ATC waiver would have to be finessed (probably by offering the government some compensation for the step-up in value), this would allow the DBSD and TerreStar spectrum to be brought into use more quickly. Indeed, by designating the AT&T/TMO merger (as DISH requested), approving the Qualcomm spectrum transaction, and apparently supporting “the efficient use of spectrum without decreasing competition“, the FCC seems to be implying that this would be its preferred course of action for AT&T to take.
The outcome for a jilted TMO would certainly be more challenging, but when the Justice Department has stated explicitly in its antitrust arguments that reducing the number of national wireless operators from 4 to 3 is unacceptable, a sale to Sprint also seems to be off the table. Of course that would be a good reason for AT&T to pursue the February court case to a conclusion, because a ruling against AT&T on these grounds would also prevent a future Sprint/TMO or Verizon/Sprint merger. Instead, a spinoff and float of TMOUSA, potentially with the cable companies injecting their AWS-1 spectrum in exchange for an equity stake in what would then be a listed company, could give TMOUSA a much stronger position with roughly 50MHz of AWS-1 spectrum (used for HSPA+ in the near term) and roaming rights onto AT&T’s network.
That would leave Sprint as the Thanksgiving turkey, with no good spectrum options other than to do some form of deal with Clearwire. Ironically, with Sprint having agreed with DISH just a few weeks ago to withdraw its objections to the use of the DBSD/TerreStar spectrum, it may be hard pressed to credibly object to a deal between DISH and AT&T. Unfortunately for Sprint, it also seems that Clearwire may have increased the amount of funding it is asking Sprint to provide in the near term (as an advance against an extended capacity purchase agreement), because it is proving harder than expected for Clearwire to raise money from others (e.g. vendor financing). Whether that will be acceptable to Sprint, in an environment where it faces severe cash pressures to execute its Network Vision strategy, is unclear. It will therefore be very interesting to see what happens next Friday, when Clearwire’s interest payment is due.