As the hammer came down on the FCC’s 700MHz spectrum auction last month, winners (and losers) were forced to be coy about their plans under the Commission’s anti-collusion rules. That ban on discussion ended late yesterday, and various key players in the proceedings have stepped up to give their version of events. As expected, Verizon and AT&T have been crowing about their takings; perhaps more surprising is the active part Google claims to have taken in the auction – even raising its own bid for ten rounds – though their smugness over open-access is predictable.
With “beach front” Block C under their control (and the open-access provisos to boot), Verizon has confirmed it will use the 700MHz spectrum for its 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) network, the eventual replacement for the carrier’s 3G EV-DO Rev.A service. Apparently they have been running lab tests on LTE systems, and are planning a field trial of the technology in Q1 2009, although this will not use the 700MHz bands since they’ll still be occupied by analogue TV. An eventual roll-out of the 700MHz LTE network is expected in 2010, complete with Verizon’s “Any Device, Any App” open-access program to allow third-party app and handset developers to use the new service.
AT&T, meanwhile, are claiming a logistical victory; despite criticism regarding the amount they have invested in next-generation spectrum (both from Block B in this auction and in previous buy-outs from Aloha Partners), CEO Ralph de la Vega has argued that the outlay was worth it to be entirely free of open-access clauses:
“Our strategy was to acquire the spectrum that complemented our spectrum we acquired from Aloha” Ralph de la Vega, President & CEO, AT&T
They, too, plan to use the 700MHz frequencies under their control to operate a LTE network, although theirs will not hit the market until two years after Verizon’s, with AT&T officials suggesting a 2012 launch. However their existing 3G HSPA speeds are expected to double to 7.2Mbps in 2009, bridging the gap with current, 3.5G technology. AT&T have also stated they will be looking to work with non-traditional vendors, so while they will likely be sterner gate-keepers than Verizon are allowed to be, the possibility is there for more unusual devices and a broader range of price points.
While not leaving the auction with spectrum to show, Google are still upbeat about the outcome. In a post to the official blog, their bidding representatives Richard Whitt and Joseph Faber describe securing open-access as the search giant’s “top priority”, with the prospect of actually acquiring Block C a possibility but not an aim.
“Based on the way that the bidding played out, our participation in the auction helped ensure that the C Block met the reserve price. In fact, in ten of the bidding rounds we actually raised our own bid — even though no one was bidding against us — to ensure aggressive bidding on the C Block. In turn, that helped increase the revenues raised for the U.S. Treasury, while making sure that the openness conditions would be applied to the ultimate licensee”Richard Whitt & Joseph Faber, Google Blog
They’re now promising to weigh in on how the FCC relists unsold Block D (and which qualifications on the eventual buyer will be in place), continue their effort to free up the so-called “white space” between digital TV transmissions and closely monitor how open-access is managed by the FCC, all the while promoting their own Android mobile OS.
Interestingly, the adoption of LTE by both Verizon and AT&T will mean that for the first time in recent history mobile devices will be compatible with networks of the two major carriers in the US wireless industry. While only Verizon has the FCC peering over its shoulder to ensure mandatory open-access, AT&T’s experience of GSM – and the SIM-swapping that goes along with it – will likely see it take a less strident approach to unlocked devices than, say, if the two telcos positions had been reversed. Indeed, AT&T responded at the start of the open-access furore by pointing out its GSM service had always been available to devices supporting its frequencies.
Although the commercial networks are therefore some way off, it casts a further shadow on the prospects of WiMAX, especially with Sprint’s lacklustre announcement that Xohm’s rollout has been further delayed. Ironically, they’ve got the hardware and, potentially, the customers; it remains to be seen whether they can capitalise on that to a sufficient extent before Verizon’s 2010 LTE launch.