AT&T: Carrier aggregation woes slow launch of ex-Qualcomm 700 MHz spectrum

AT&T (NYSE:T) claims it cannot deploy LTE over its 700 MHz Lower D and E Block spectrum until mid-to-late 2014 because the necessary interoperability test cases for LTE Advanced carrier aggregation are still in development within 3GPP.

AT&T acquired the unpaired licenses for $1.93 billion in December 2011 from Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), which had used the frequencies for its defunct MediaFLO service. AT&T intends to use the spectrum to provide a supplemental downlink using LTE Advanced carrier aggregation in conjunction with its other AWS, PCS and cellular licenses.

In 2011, AT&T told the FCC it would put the spectrum to use as early as 2014, a goal the company still hopes to meet. It estimated at the time that it would cost $1 billion to $2 billion to integrate Lower D and E Block 700 MHz frequencies into its network. The acquisition included 12 MHz of Lower D and E Block spectrum covering more than 70 million POPs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco and 6 MHz of Lower D Block spectrum covering 230 million POPs across much of the rest of the country.

In an FCC filing earlier this month, AT&T detailed its efforts to make the former Qualcomm spectrum usable. The operator worked closely with 3GPP, which in December 2012 specifically designated Band 29 for downlink use only in the 700 MHz D and E Blocks and approved technical specifications for aggregation of a downlink Band 29 with an uplink frequency band in Band 2 (PCS 1900 MHz) or Band 4 (AWS 1700/2100 MHz).

AT&T asserted that manufacturers are already developing compatible chipsets, hardware and software for network equipment and wireless devices for the spectrum.

"With the designation of Band 29 and the approval of technical specifications for the use of the D and E Blocks for supplemental downlink utilizing carrier aggregation, network equipment and end-user device manufacturers can design and develop products that operate in accordance with these standards," said the carrier.

Yet there is a hang-up concerning carrier aggregation. Specifically, test cases for carrier aggregation scenarios involving Band 29/Band 2 and Band 29/Band 4 pairings are still being developed by 3GPP working groups. Further, they will not even be presented for approval at 3GPP until September 2013.

Those test cases are essential because they permit uniform manufacturing and interoperability tests by wireless operators, and until they are set, network equipment and end-user devices will not be made available.

"Network equipment and end-user devices utilizing the D and E Blocks will likely not be available for testing until late 2013 or early 2014, with limited deployment expected to begin no earlier than middle to late 2014," said AT&T.

The operator pledged to begin deploying its D and E Block spectrum as soon as network equipment and wireless devices are available.

In related news, Dish Network (NASDAQ: DISH) has requested the FCC waive its network buildout requirements on the 700 MHz E Block spectrum that Dish acquired during the FCC's 2008 auction. Dish said that numerous factors, including a lack of suitable equipment and ongoing uncertainty over interference, have prevented it from using the spectrum.

Dish said it has filed a "work item" with 3GPP to use carrier aggregation technology to combine Band 29 with Band 23, which includes AWS-4 spectrum Dish purchased last year.

For more:
- see this AT&T filing

Special Report: Carrier aggregation: How AT&T will use Qualcomm's MediaFLO spectrum to double LTE speeds

Related articles:
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FCC approves AT&T's $1.93B purchase of Qualcomm's 700 MHz spectrum
AT&T: Building out Qualcomm's 700 MHz will cost at least $1-2B
AT&T, Qualcomm demo carrier aggregation technology for the FCC