US Carriers Spectrum Starved?

One information that is pretty hard to come by is which carrier in any one country holds what kind and how much spectrum. I've always been wondering if the coverage and speed situation in the US is perhaps due to too little spectrum available but the best I could do so far was summing up the available capacity per band. For details look here. How much each carrier has available, though, can't be derived from that. But recently, I've come across this interesting paper that shows how much spectrum each US carrier has available and in which band in table 5.

Let's take AT&T for example and compare that to the spectrum available to, lets say, Vodafone in Germany:

  • In the 850 MHz band AT&T 2×12.5 MHz available, which compares directly to the 2×12.5 MHz (uplink/downlink) Vodafone has available in the 900 MHz band. While Vodafone uses the complete spectrum for GSM, AT&T runs both GSM and UMTS over the band.
  • In the 1900 MHz band AT&T has 2×10 MHz available and uses it for GSM and UMTS service. This compares to the 2×10 MHz Vodafone has available in the 2100 MHz band it uses for UMTS services + 2×5 MHz in the 1800 MHz band used for GSM. In other words, Vodafone has a bit more spectrum, but not that much).
  • AT&T has 2×7.5 MHz in the AWS (1700/2100) MHz band that I assume it doesn't use at the moment. 
  • And finally, AT&T has 2×15 MHz in the 700 MHz digital dividend band. That compares to the 2×10 MHz Vodafone has in the 800 MHz band after the auction last year.

In other words, so far, the two carriers have about the same amount of spectrum in comparative frequency bands (and could hence offer the same quality in terms of coverage and speed).

Interesting twist relevant for the future: Vodafone has an additional 2×20 MHz in the 2600 MHz band it got during the spectrum auctions in 2010 for their LTE network. And I am sure they will put to good use.

4 thoughts on “US Carriers Spectrum Starved?”

  1. Thanks for the overview – indeed it seems that spectrum assets are comparable. Nevertheless I would argue, that in terms off data demand the carrier have to deal with US is different – especially since ATT has to cope with high smartphone density in combination with true flat-rate data plans. Arguably, the US carriers are years ahead in the moble broadband era. That is why in my view, spectrum crunch is more of an issue than in German…

  2. Hi Michael,

    I wonder if you have more data and comparisons concerning this!? I am frequently traveling in both Europe and the US and quite frankly I dont see a big difference in the amount of smartphone use and smartphone penetration on either side of the Atlantic.


  3. There’s a small problem with the number quoted here for AT&T’s 700 MHz holdings. The cited paper indicates 20 MHz @ 700 MHz, which is 2×10 MHz, not 2×15 MHz. However, Verizon got the only nation-wide 2×11 MHz license. AT&T got one or two 2×6 MHz licenses per market, meaning that it holds either 12 or 24 MHz in each 700 MHz market.

    As with many causes that GSM Americas (and CTIA) champion, there is more to the story. The way these organizations — and the carriers themselves — tell it, the only way to deal with traffic growth is more spectrum. But this is an absurdly black & white argument. There are *many* ways to deal with traffic growth: terminating unlimited data plans, doing a better job of traffic management, utilizing more efficient technologies (like LTE), and yes, building more sites are all options. But more spectrum allows carriers just to be lazy and continue doing what they’ve been doing for the past 20 years, rather than being innovative, which is why they are howling for more of it.

    I think the real takeaway from Table 5 in the cited paper is that spectrum is absurdly concentrated in the U.S., with AT&T and Verizon having almost twice as much as the second-tier carriers. When the FCC permits AT&T to eat T-Mobile USA — as it surely will — how long can it be before Verizon consumes Sprint? That will leave substantially all the U.S. cellular spectrum in the hands of two operators, resulting in an insurmountable barrier to entry for new operators.

    I regret that some organizations seem to think that the job of the regulator is to serve the needs of the carriers rather than the needs of consumers.

  4. A few corrections to my own post:

    Verzion does have near-nationwide coverage at 700 MHz, but not with the nationwide license; they won most of the 2×11 MHz licenses covering 98% of POPs (continental U.S. and Hawaii).

    Verizon also has over half the A block (2×6 MHz) by POPs – mostly big metro areas – and some B (2×6 MHz).

    AT&T has just under 2/3 of the POPs in the B block (2×6 MHz). That’s 12 MHz in *some* markets, so both my numbers and the GSMA paper were wrong.

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