FCC extends AT&T’s deadline to launch in WCS C and D Blocks

The FCC has extended AT&T’s deadline to launch smart grid services in the unpaired 2.3 GHz WCS C and D Blocks by two years.

The FCC approved AT&T’s deadline to launch smart grid services in the unpaired 2.3 GHz WCS C and D Blocks it once planned to use to offer in-flight Wi-Fi.

The operator has long struggled to find ways to leverage those airwaves, which can interfere with adjacent spectrum used for Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service (SDARS) and Aeronautical Mobile Telemetry (AMT). AT&T has begun to build out LTE in its WCS bands in some markets, but it's unclear how widespread the rollout is and whether that deployment is in the C and D Blocks. 

AT&T said last year in an FCC filing that while the “long history of disputes in the band have largely been resolved,” the C and D Blocks “remain encumbered by strict limitations” to protect SDARS and AMT, preventing the carrier from meeting launch deadlines. In a 10-page order (PDF) released Friday, the FCC agreed to waive those deadlines.

“We find that the unique context surrounding AT&T’s WCS C and D Block licenses, as well as the difficulty of applying conventional population- or fixed link-based construction metrics to the proposed hybrid nature of AT&T’s smart grid operation, justifies relief from our rules,” the commission wrote. “In providing relief, we permit AT&T to offer a service consistent with WCS rules that makes productive use of spectrum that has remained underutilized for nearly 20 years, yet minimizes the risk of harmful interference to neighboring operations.”

Extending the deadline will allow AT&T to continue to test equipment, the commission said, and to deploy trial systems. The agency pushed the final performance deadline back two years, giving AT&T until September 2021 to provide service to at least three different utility companies “that collectively have a significant presence” in specific regions where the carrier holds C and D Block licenses.

AT&T acquired the 2.3 GHz spectrum in a series of deals that were all approved by the FCC in 2012. (AT&T also inked an agreement with Sirius XM at that time to prevent interference between the satellite radio company's broadcasts and LTE in the WCS band.) Specifically, in 2012, AT&T purchased 10-20 MHz of WCS A and B Block spectrum in 473 CMAs, covering close to 70% of the continental U.S. population; and it purchased 5-10 MHz of WCS C and D Block spectrum in 344 CMAs, covering 54% of the continental U.S. population. In 2014, AT&T aborted a plan to use its C and D Block WCS spectrum to build a nationwide network for airplane passengers.