Marek’s Take: Leadership during a crisis will be remembered long after it ends

Perhaps the most important maneuver by operators during this crisis has been the borrowing of spectrum licenses that currently aren’t being used by their license holders. (Pixabay)
Marek's take

It’s heartening to see wireless companies stepping up to help their customers and employees during this time of global crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is no playbook for how to handle this type of a rapidly evolving crisis, I believe that many wireless companies are showing true leadership.

For example, all four Tier 1 operators — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — have pledged to keep their customers connected for the next 60 days (or longer) even if they can’t pay their bills. All four Tier 1s have also said they would remove data caps on metered service plans to help consumers as many sort-out work-from-home arrangements.

But when it comes to closing retail stores to keep employees safe from COVID-19, T-Mobile appears to have taken the strongest position here. The company said it closed about 80% of its stores. Sprint isn't too far behind — it said last week that it will temporarily close 71% of its stores. AT&T, meanwhile, initially said it was closing 40% of its stores, but updated that information to say it was closing a significant number of stores and keeping only one store open in a 20-mile radius in urban and suburban areas and one store open within a 30-mile radius in rural areas. Verizon hasn't provided specific details about how many stores it has closed, but said several were closed, and the remaining open stores have reduced their store hours.    

Analysts have noted that these retail closures will likely disrupt customer growth so operators are going to see the results of these store closings in their quarterly earnings. T-Mobile, with 80% of its stores closed, is sending the message that the company is prioritizing its employees’ health over profits. I believe this message will resonate with T-Mobile employees and consumers. Other operators would be wise to consider this.

Interestingly, Sprint MVNO Boost Mobile is making international calling free for some high-risk countries. The company is offering its customers free international calling rates from the U.S. to countries that the Center for Disease Control classifies as a Level 3, which means they are significantly impacted by COVID-19. These areas include Europe, Iran and South Korea.   

This tactic seems specifically directed to Boost’s user base, many of which are immigrants to the U.S. that have family members still living overseas.

Spectrum heroes

But perhaps the most important maneuver by operators during this crisis has been the borrowing of spectrum licenses that currently aren’t being used by their license holders. T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T and US Cellular all revealed this week that they will increase their network capacity and coverage for the next 60 days to help wireless customers that are homebound because of COVID-19.

The shared spectrum arrangements were made possible by the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, which signed a special authorization so the operators can use these additional spectrum licenses. 

And surprisingly, Dish Network has been involved in three of the spectrum deals. In T-Mobile’s case, the operator secured extra spectrum licenses in the 600 MHz spectrum band by forging agreements with Dish, as well as Comcast, Bluewater, Channel 51, NewLevel, LB Holdings and Omega Wireless. But the most spectrum for this deal will come from Dish, which is the second largest holder of 600 MHz spectrum after T-Mobile. According to Lightshed Research, a New York-based financial research firm, Dish owns about 20 MHz, on average, of 600 MHz spectrum nationwide.

Dish is also connected to Verizon’s securing of additional spectrum because Verizon will be using spectrum licenses from Northstar Wireless and SNR Wireless in the AWS-3 spectrum band. While Dish doesn’t technically own that spectrum, it teamed with Northstar Wireless and SNR Wireless to acquire spectrum licenses in the AWS-3 spectrum auction in 2015, and is financially tied to those licenses.

Plus, Dish is lending 20 MHz of its AWS-4 (Band 66) and all of its 700 MHz spectrum to AT&T. AT&T is expected to deploy the AWS-4 spectrum quickly because it already uses spectrum in the AWS-1 and AWS-3 bands. And it will likely use Dish’s 700 MHz E-block spectrum in conjunction with some of its 700 MHz D-block spectrum.

This type of arrangement is very unusual in the wireless industry. According to Roger Entner, analyst with Recon Analytics, temporarily using spectrum licenses has occurred in the past, but it usually just involved one spectrum license and was for a very short time period to help with capacity for a special event, for example.

And while I commend all parties involved for this creativity, I have to wonder whether there isn’t more that the wireless industry could be doing to help stop this pandemic. 

Chetan Sharma, CEO of Chetan Sharma Consulting, offers this suggestion: Similar to how operators teamed to promote the “Don’t Text and Drive” campaign to stop drivers from texting while they were driving, perhaps they can use location-based services and texting to inform consumers about the pandemic in their area, or keep them away from certain hot areas.

In times of crisis, leadership is critical, and industries or individual companies that make bold moves to help with this pandemic will be remembered long after the crisis has ended.