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AT&T CEO Calls on FCC to Free More Wireless Spectrum

Claims US Not Doing Enough to Keep Up With Demand

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AT&T has not been reticent to criticize the federal government, and specifically the FCC, when it comes to broadband deployment in America. The most notable battle of course, is AT&T's failed bid to acquire T-Mobile after mounting FCC opposition over the move.

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This time, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is taking aim at the FCC's plan to unleash spectrum for wireless broadband deployment. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, the AT&T CEO claims that the US is not keeping pace with other countries when it comes to finding spectrum for carriers to use to roll out broadband service.

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According to Stephenson, demand for spectrum has greatly outpaced supply - leading to a crisis which will jeopardize President Obama's goal to provide 4G/LTE service to 98% of Americans within the next few years.

"The latest mobile devices give us the power to summon maps in distant cities, watch the news under a shady tree, or adjust our home thermostats from the airport lounge. This power at our fingertips is provided by major advances in our networks and increasingly powerful smartphones and tablets. But it equally depends on an unseen scarce resource: the radio waves, or spectrum, that transmit mobile data.

The demand for mobile data is now roughly doubling every year. Smartphones use 30 times more data than the cellphones they replaced. Meanwhile, the supply of spectrum supporting mobile devices has remained the same since 2008.

That means we're in a race against time. The demand for spectrum will exceed supply by 2013, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates. If that happens, the speed of the mobile revolution will slow down. Prices, download times and consumer frustration will all increase. And at a societal level we risk jeopardizing the future of our nation's vital mobile Internet infrastructure, which is generating jobs and investment on a scale well beyond the first Internet boom of the 1990s.

Congress recently approved the FCC's plans to auction spectrum held by TV broadcasters, an important, long-term step in the right direction. But it will take six to eight years to put that spectrum to use. Our country and our consumers can't wait that long. We need to work together to find immediate solutions.

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Stephenson proposes three specific actions to solve the spectrum shortage problem: • Require spectrum holders to put the airwaves to work. Many spectrum holders are speculators seeking an investment gain, with no intent to build a mobile network. We should discourage speculation and do more to ensure that spectrum goes to companies with the experience and means to put it to work. 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.

It's encouraging to see that in recent actions the FCC has required much more robust build schedules. This sends a strong signal to the industry that those holding spectrum must be prepared to put it to full and effective use, and serves to discourage speculators from buying up spectrum and keeping it dormant for years. Mobile device usage is growing too fast and spectrum is too precious to keep it on the shelf.

• Quickly get spectrum where consumers need it most. Large amounts of spectrum actually sit unused in the marketplace today. It's held by companies that are not using it but would be willing to sell their stakes if they were certain the transaction would be approved in short order. A buyer could put compatible spectrum to work in as little as 60 days. Here, too, we've recently seen some encouraging signs that the FCC recognizes the importance of expedited spectrum sale reviews. Consumers and businesses who depend on their mobile devices every waking hour will benefit if speed continues to be a priority.

• Establish a national model for the local approval process that's required when wireless carriers need to build new mobile infrastructure. The process needs to balance community concerns with the significant public benefit of adding new antennas and improving wireless coverage in local markets. 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. Our wireless infrastructure is every bit as critical to economic expansion.

The FCC does require purchasers of spectrum to commit to buildout schedules. As an example, 700 MHz Lower A and B Block licensees must cover at least 35% of their proposed service areas by 2013.

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Stephenson is calling for even faster buildout schedules - and a quicker process to speed the transfer of spectrum licenses from one company to another. The call for more expedient government review of infrastructure deployment has been heard in Congress as well. In February, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which authorizes "collocation-by-right" for the deployment of infrastructure. This particular section of the law states that state or local governments "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."

In addition to the "collocation-by-right" clause, President Obama recently issue an Executive Order requiring federal agencies to develop standard and consistent processes for broadband providers to use when deploying networks on federal property.

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