AT&T looks to deploy FirstNet, WCS and AWS spectrum as soon as this year

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AT&T plans to roll out services on its FirstNet, WCS and AWS spectrum as soon as this year, Chief Strategy Officer John Donovan said Wednesday. And it’s more than willing to build its own towers if necessary.

The nation’s No. 2 mobile network operator has amassed a significant amount of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum in recent years, according to the latest data from Allnet Insights & Analytics. AT&T spent around $18 billion on AWS-3 spectrum licenses in 2015, and it spent less than $1 billion during the incentive auction to pick up spectrum in 18 PEAs, grabbing 30 MHz in Dallas and lesser amounts in smaller cities.

And the carrier’s portfolio of airwaves recently grew when it was awarded the contract to provide services for FirstNet.

“Spectrum is a very local business and every market is slightly different and unique in its characteristics, but if I were to generalize, I’d say roughly we have—now with First Net—60 MHz of deployable spectrum,” Donovan told attendees at an investors conference Wednesday. “Now that we’re embarking on this unlimited phase in the industry, we’re going to be out there touching an economy to deploy all that at once, and that’s the intention that we have. We’ll deploy 700 (MHz) that came from FirstNet, the WCS and the AWS spectrum in each of the markets we go in, all at the same time.”

AT&T will deploy a “few thousand” small cells this year as it begins to leverage that spectrum, Donovan said, but the carrier is taking a more deliberate strategy than some of its competitors. While Sprint is moving aggressively to roll out the smaller transmitters, AT&T is largely biding its time in the hopes that the cost of small-cell deployments decreases over the next few years.

And the carrier will continue to explore ways to build out its network while minimizing its spending on macrocells. Bill Hogg, AT&T’s president of technology operations, said a few weeks ago that “the tower model is unsustainable,” and Donovan echoed those thoughts.

“We’re going to do a lot of our own building where it’s economical, and then we’re just looking to bend that curve,” Donovan said. “One of our core competencies as a company is building networks. We’ve got 142 years of experience doing that, and so we’re good builders…. There are some (instances) where we’ll attach to existing towers where we think they have the right economics, and there are some where we will go ourselves.”

But Donovan also said AT&T hopes to hammer out new agreements with tower companies that are structured differently than traditional contracts.

“We’ve been in discussions with the major tower companies for months now,” he said, “and we’re optimistic.”