Visualized: The AWS and 700 MHz spectrum AT&T could gain from T-Mobile

Mike Dano
A key part of AT&T Mobility's (NYSE:T) motivation to acquire T-Mobile USA for $39 billion is to get access to T-Mobile's spectrum holdings. Specifically, AT&T hopes to combine its 700 MHz and AWS licenses with T-Mobile's AWS spectrum to deploy LTE technology across the country--and compete with Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ). AT&T has argued that it doesn't have enough spectrum to adequately compete with its rivals, and that users' demands for data are stretching its current network to the limits.

But exactly how much next-generation spectrum does AT&T have now? And how much does it stand to gain? And, more importantly, how much spectrum will AT&T have compared with its competitors?

To answer these questions, FierceWireless turned to American Roamer, a firm that maintains extensive and detailed coverage maps of the networks and spectrum licenses of the nation's wireless carriers, both big and small. Using its database, American Roamer provided the below charts.

The first is the top 10 700 MHz license holders (those that currently own the licenses, rather than those that purchased them in the 2008 auction). Green represents the land area covered, blue is the total number of POPs the operators cover with their licenses, and the orange bubbles represent the average amount of spectrum they own per county. (Note that there is no weight given to the number in orange based upon the population of counties--all counties are created equal for the purpose of that number.) The number in the orange bubble also corresponds to the thickness of the vertical bars.

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There are a number of conclusions to draw from this 700 MHz chart. Perhaps the most obvious is that T-Mobile doesn't hold any 700 MHz spectrum; the carrier did not participate in the FCC's 700 MHz auction in 2008. However, AT&T is working to acquire Qualcomm's 700 MHz licenses; the FCC is evaluating that transaction alongside (but not in conjunction with) AT&T's proposed purchase of T-Mobile.

Obviously Verizon is the leader in 700 MHz--the carrier spent almost $10 billion on 700 MHz licenses during the FCC's auction, and is using those radio waves to build out its nationwide LTE network.

Other top 700 MHz license holders include Frontier Wireless (backed by EchoStar, which has not disclosed its 700 MHz plans), Access Spectrum (which also has not disclosed its plans), King Street Wireless (which is partnered with U.S. Cellular, which is planning to deploy an LTE network later this year), and Cox Communications (which recently discontinued plans to build a network on its AWS spectrum).

Though there appear to be a range of 700 MHz spectrum holders, AT&T and Verizon really are the only carriers in a position to make a substantial nationwide play on 700 MHz.

Now, turning to the AWS landscape, here are the top 10 current license holders of AWS spectrum:


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The AWS scene is perhaps more interesting than 700 MHz, considering the two biggest license holders (AT&T and T-Mobile) are poised to merge.

What's also interesting is that, although the FCC's AWS auction was held in 2006, there remains a wide swath of fallow radio waves: Cox, Cavalier Wireless and SpectrumCo haven't announced what they plan to do with their AWS holdings. (Analysts recently have hinted though that Cox could merge its AWS holdings back into SpectrumCo in a move that would give the venture's cable owners--Comcast and Time Warner--a potential LTE play.)

Meanwhile, MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) is deploying LTE on its AWS holdings, while T-Mobile is using its AWS spectrum for HSPA.

Of course, if AT&T is successful in acquiring T-Mobile, it will also get T-Mobile's extensive PCS spectrum holdings. But a look at the 700 MHz and AWS battleground shows that AT&T is set to acquire a massive chunk of AWS spectrum in addition to its already substantial 700 MHz holdings.--Mike