OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

‘I Love It When a Plan Comes Together’

Some of us are old enough to remember the actual origins of that phrase, now an ever-popular internet meme. In one of the most famous lines from the mid-1980s television show “The A-Team,” starring “Dancing with the Stars” icon “Mr. T,” A-Team leader Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard) declares, “I love it when a plan comes together” — kind of like what the folks at AT&T Wireless are probably thinking these days.

Why? Because FirstNet, the independent authority Congress created to develop, build and operate a nationwide broadband network for first responders, just awarded the contract for doing so to AT&T. It’s the culmination of a plan hatched in 2010 to make sure that a block of very valuable commercial spectrum stayed out of the hands of AT&T’s smaller wireless competitors.

Back then, the 700 MHz band, newly available for auction when broadcasters relocated as part of the Digital Television Transition, was the prized most sought-after “beachfront” spectrum for improving wireless network coverage. And the “belle of the ball” was a slice called the D Block, the best 700 MHz spectrum still available after the government auctioned off the rest. No bidder met the Federal Communications Commission’s initial D Block auction requirement, however, because it came with an uncapped obligation to build a public safety network in the D Block and adjacent 700 MHz public safety channels. So when the D Block auction failed, interested parties urged the FCC to drop the public safety obligation and re-auction the D Block as regular commercial spectrum. Carriers with little or no “beachfront” spectrum, such as T-Mobile and Sprint, liked the idea, as did the big 700 MHz auction winners: Verizon and AT&T.

But the FCC then made a surprising decision that complicated matters. It approved the unrelated transfer of a mobile satellite license, controlled by SkyTerra Communications Inc. (subsequently LightSquared and now Ligado) to a private hedge fund, Harbinger Capital Partners Funds. The FCC’s approval included, however, a “voluntary condition” providing that SkyTerra not allow its planned “wholesale” terrestrial mobile network to be used, directly or indirectly, by either of the two largest wireless providers — meaning Verizon and AT&T — without prior FCC approval. Stated differently, the FCC concluded that restricting the wireless market’s biggest players from buying or leasing capacity on SkyTerra’s new wholesale network would inject much-needed competition into the wireless marketplace. Verizon and AT&T demanded immediate reconsideration, of course, but the FCC simply sat on their petitions. (Full disclosure: I filed oppositions to their petitions on behalf of Sprint.)

With the SkyTerra conditions remaining in place, AT&T and Verizon began to fear that the FCC might similarly restrict or block their participation in a D Block re-auction, effectively earmarking the “beachfront” D Block for their competitors. So, Verizon and AT&T started a counter-offensive. Taking a page from a previous 800 MHz spectrum battle, they joined forces with the public safety community and pushed Congress to pass a bill reallocating the D Block from commercial to public safety use. They argued that combining the D Block with public safety’s existing 700 MHz spectrum would better support an interoperable, nationwide wireless broadband network, an unfulfilled recommendation of the President’s September 11 Commission. Not surprisingly, the proposal gained strong support from public safety and other stakeholders and Congress enacted it. (See Section 6101 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.)

Verizon and AT&T’s counter-strategy was pure genius; if the market’s two largest carriers couldn’t have this valuable spectrum, neither could their competitors. And “giving” the D Block to public safety was the perfect public interest cover for undercutting the FCC’s nascent inclination to limit a re-auction to AT&T and Verizon’s competitors.

Now don’t get me wrong. AT&T is a safe choice to be FirstNet’s network partner with its existing LTE network and its ability to invest about $40 billion in the public safety network over its 25-year contract — essential funding as FirstNet’s $6.5 billion is far short of that needed to construct, operate and maintain a nationwide, 4G, “public safety grade” mobile data network. AT&T deserves credit for consistently “walking the walk” in supporting public safety and deploying its considerable congressional and federal lobbying resources for D Block reallocation to public safety. Moreover, it’s way past time to get this network built and serving our nation’s first responders.

But, to paraphrase the A-Team’s Hannibal Smith, you’ve got to love it when a plan comes together! AT&T helped keep valuable spectrum out of its competitors hands, won public safety’s business for the next 25 years and gets to incorporate the public safety network’s excess capacity in its commercial network, plus a cool $6.5 billion in funding.

Now that’s what I call the A-Team!

 

Lawrence R. Krevor is senior counsel at Perkins Coie and a former attorney at the FCC and Sprint focusing on spectrum. These are his personal views and not those of Perkins Coie.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Briefings

Tech Brief: 3 House Democrats Call for FCC Investigation of Sputnik

Three Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Sputnik, a news organization established by a Russian state-owned news agency, violated the public interest standard of its broadcast license with its radio show. Reps. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) and Mike Doyle (Pa.) asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to follow up on a New York Times Magazine report that suggested the organization used U.S. airwaves to broadcast programming aimed at influencing the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Tech Brief: FCC Requests More Information on Sinclair-Tribune Merger

The Federal Communications Commission asked Sinclair Broadcast Group to provide more information on its proposal to acquire Tribune Media Co., a merger currently pending FCC approval. The FCC’s Media Bureau chief wrote a letter to Sinclair asking the telecommunications company to present further information about the size of its current audience, as well as the steps the company plans to take to stay below the ownership cap.

Tech Brief: Kaspersky Agrees to Testify Before House Committee

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee invited Kaspersky Lab Inc. co-founder and CEO Eugene Kaspersky to testify, along with other private and U.S. government cybersecurity experts, before the panel on Sept. 27, and he accepted the invitation — pending the acquisition of an expedited visa. The Moscow-based company, which makes antivirus software, is on the defensive from allegations it aids Russian espionage efforts.

Tech Brief: Judges Rule Uber-Waymo Case Will Go to Trial, Not Arbitration

A panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit denied Uber Technologies Inc.’s appeal request for its legal dispute with Waymo LLC to move to private arbitration and ruled a public trial will proceed as scheduled in October. The court also ruled that Uber must hand over a crucial report for Waymo’s case that could hold evidence Uber stole trade secrets related to the development of self-driving cars.

Tech Brief: House Democrats Request Answers From Equifax on Data Breach

Led by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), all 24 Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Equifax Inc. CEO Richard Smith expressing concerns that it took more than a month for the company to reveal the massive data breach it said took place from mid-May through July, and about the scale and extent of the breach. The signers asked Smith to address these concerns prior to a planned hearing on the issue.

Tech Brief: Apple Expected to Unveil Premium Model ‘iPhone X’ Today

Apple Inc. plans to premiere the so-called iPhone X with a starting price of $999.00 at a 10th anniversary iPhone event on Tuesday, joining Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd in the market for luxury smartphones. In addition to the iPhone X, which uses infrared facial recognition to unlock the device, Apple is also expected to release cheaper models of the iPhone and an updated Apple Watch, with self-contained connect

Tech Brief: Two House Committees Call Hearings on Equifax Data Breach

Equifax Ltd. could be examined by up to three committees in the U.S. House of Representatives after a breach at the company exposed the data of roughly 143 million people. Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) of the Financial Services Committee and Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee announced hearings, and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) called for an investigation by the Judiciary Committee.

Load More