AT&T CEO praises FCC's move on spectrum holdings

AT&T (NYSE:T) CEO Randall Stephenson commended the FCC for moving to review its rules for how much spectrum a carrier should be able to hold. The tone from Stephenson is noticeably different from the combative stance AT&T and the FCC had last year amid the agency's review of AT&T's failed $39 billion T-Mobile USA acquisition. 

Stephenson, speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, said that he "applauded" the FCC's move. He said that a lack of clarity from regulators was causing a "pause" in deals between carriers.

At its Sept. 28 meeting, the FCC is expected to begin exploring rules that determine the agency's so-called spectrum-screen, which it uses when reviewing spectrum transactions. If a carrier acquires too much spectrum and violates the screen, the deal is more closely scrutinized. Currently, the screen is different for each proposed transaction. The rulemaking is expected to look at spectrum transfers between companies and will likely explore whether to treat lower-band spectrum differently than higher-band radio waves.

Stephenson said that the rulemaking is the "only chance" the wireless industry has to get more clarity on how much spectrum carriers can hold. He said he welcome the opportunity for carriers to add their views and data to the public record on the issue. "Right now there is zero clarity on what spectrum holdings are allowed," he said.

The issue comes as the FCC reviews AT&T's proposed purchase of nationwide 2.3 GHz WCS spectrum licenses from NextWave Wireless, Comcast and Horizon Wi-Com, which AT&T intends to use for extra LTE capacity. Stephenson said that spectrum, along with Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) 700 MHZ B Block spectrum--which Verizon intends to sell and AT&T plans to bid for--could give AT&T a solid spectrum position for the next three to five years. But he said that AT&T and other carriers are always looking for more spectrum.

Stephenson also said that the expected auction of broadcast TV spectrum for mobile use will likely result in 50 MHz of spectrum auctioned to five or six bidders, which he said will "not solve any long-term problems" in terms of capacity.

The AT&T chief also talked about the carrier's new Mobile Share shared data plans, which it launched Aug. 23 for new and existing customers. The plans, like the shared plans from Verizon, provide unlimited voice and texting and various tiers of data, which users can share among multiple devices. With AT&T's plans, the price per GB goes down the more customers use and buy. He said that AT&T has been surprised that customers who have signed up for the plans have opted for the plans at the higher end of the price range, near to the 10 GB/$120 per month range.

Stephenson said the new plans allow AT&T to monetize data, which is costlier to transport than voice and texting traffic. "What it does is it kind of changes the dynamic in the industry," he said. "You go from a place where people are worried about more devices to, 'We want more devices using more data.'"

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