As Charter ramps MVNO, T-Mobile buys Charter’s 700 MHz spectrum in Montana

T-Mobile said it recently inked an agreement to purchase Charter Communication’s 700 MHz A Block spectrum for Eastern Montana. T-Mobile said the spectrum covers 600,000 POPs and 120,000 square miles of geography in the area.

“That network footprint expansion is a key opportunity for expansion of the business,” T-Mobile EVP and CTO Neville Ray said during a recent appearance at an investor conference.

Representatives from T-Mobile and Charter did not immediately respond to questions from FierceWireless about the transaction. However, T-Mobile has been working for years to expand its network via 700 MHz A Block spectrum.

Brian Goemmer, president of spectrum analysis company Allnet Insights & Analytics, said that the T-Mobile-Charter spectrum purchase doesn't appear to have yet been filed with the FCC, which tracks the ownership of all licensed spectrum. However, Goemmer said that Charter owns the Billings and Rapid City Economic Area 700 MHz A Block licenses and the Montana 5 - Mineral CMA Area 700 MHz B Block license. “The Montana 5 B block license overlaps counties that T-Mobile already controls the 700MHz A-block spectrum,” he noted.

Interestingly, Goemmer also said Charter’s two spectrum licenses in Montana are the only licenses the company owns in the spectrum bands generally used by wireless carriers – potentially indicating Charter won’t own any spectrum bands for cellular networks following its transaction with T-Mobile.

The timing of the sale of Charter’s spectrum licenses to T-Mobile is noteworthy considering just this week Charter’s CEO confirmed the company asked Verizon to activate the MVNO agreement Charter inherited when it closed its purchase of Time Warner Cable earlier this year. “We’ve told Verizon we’re interested in the MVNO agreement — we’ve asked to activate it. We’d like to pursue that relationship,” said Charter chief executive Tom Rutledge at a recent investor conference.

Charter isn’t the only cable company to activate an MVNO agreement with Verizon; Comcast last year indicated it would do so, and this week the company’s CEO promised Comcast would launch wireless service sometime next year via its MVNO agreement with Verizon and its network of public Wi-Fi hotspots, albeit only in its cable service area.

Goemmer also noted that T-Mobile’s reported purchase of 700 MHz spectrum in Montana from Charter is one of several spectrum acquisitions by T-Mobile that remain pending before the FCC. Here are all of T-Mobile’s pending spectrum purchases at the FCC, according to Allnet Insights & Analytics:

Allnet Insights & Analytics

During his appearance this week, Ray said T-Mobile’s LTE network covers 312 million POPs, and its 700 MHz LTE network covers 215 million POPs. He said the company eventually expects to own 700 MHz licenses covering 269 million POPs.

Ray also boasted that “we still have a lot more spectrum that we can bring to bear.” Specifically, he said T-Mobile’s move to Voice over LTE technology (fully 60 percent of the carrier’s voice calls now travel over LTE) will free up spectrum the carrier can refarm to LTE. And the carrier also plans to build out additional 700 MHz spectrum licenses, as well as and AWS-3 spectrum licenses it won in the FCC’s AWS-3 spectrum auction last year.

“When you look at that situation over the next two to three years, that puts us in a good near term spectrum position,” Ray said, adding that the company also expects to expand its services into unlicensed spectrum in the 3.5 GHz and 5 GHz bands. “We’re becoming more confident with the opportunity to move into unlicensed LTE in the ’17 timeframe.”

Ray also noted that, via its acquisition of MetroPCS, T-Mobile owns 28 GHz licenses covering roughly 100 million POPs, giving the company about 200 MHz of bandwidth in that band.

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