AT&T's Stephenson calls for 'use it or lose it' provisions on spectrum

AT&T (NYSE:T) CEO Randall Stephenson said the FCC should require spectrum holders to deploy their airwaves more aggressively and should speed up the transfer of spectrum between carriers. He also pushed for federal rules that would allow carriers to more quickly build new cell sites.

In an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, Stephenson outlined the three policy imperatives, which he said will help carriers continue to meet the demands placed on their networks from rising mobile data traffic. Stephenson previously has endorsed many of the policy prescriptions he described in the Op-Ed in the months since the FCC and Department of Justice blocked AT&T's proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA. 

The AT&T chief noted in the Op-Ed that the company is investing in smart antennas and Wi-Fi offloading, but that these techniques will not be enough. (Stephenson wrote that AT&T's 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots carry just 1 percent of the company's current total mobile data traffic.)

In the immediate future, Stephenson said spectrum owners should be required to build out their spectrum or risk losing it. "We should discourage speculation and do more to ensure that spectrum goes to companies with the experience and means to put it to work," he wrote. "If a buyer hasn't used the spectrum within a reasonable time period--which could vary depending on the spectrum's technical properties or use restrictions--they would either have to put it up for sale, lease it or find a partner who can build it out."

The FCC currently applies buildout schedules to spectrum acquired via purchases or auctions. For example, 700 MHz Lower A and B Block licensees must cover 35 percent of their licensed geographic areas by mid-2013. Stephenson wrote that he is encouraged that the FCC has recently proposed aggressive buildout schedules for companies that have acquired spectrum. 

The AT&T chief also called on the FCC to speed up the transfer of spectrum licenses from one company to another. "A buyer could put compatible spectrum to work in as little as 60 days," he wrote. "Here, too, we've recently seen some encouraging signs that the FCC recognizes the importance of expedited spectrum sale reviews." It took roughly four months for the FCC to approve AT&T's transfer of AWS spectrum to T-Mobile after the deal fell apart.

Additionally, Stephenson wrote that there needs to be "a national model for the local approval process that's required" when carriers want to build new infrastructure. "Building our nation's railroads and interstate highway system was made easier because Congress declared their construction a national priority and provided the policy framework to build them quickly," he wrote. "Our wireless infrastructure is every bit as critical to economic expansion."

Movement has been made in this area as well. Congress in February passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which in part authorizes what is known as "collocation-by-right" for the deployment of infrastructure. The relevant section states that a state or local government "may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facilities request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station."

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)

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