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Dish cites T-Mobile’s low-band spectrum stash in bid for new FCC policies

Dish Network is re-upping its calls for the FCC to update spectrum holding policies, saying the agency’s current spectrum procedures have enabled incumbents like T-Mobile to amass too much low-band spectrum to the detriment of new competitors and regional carriers.

Dish EVP of External & Legislative Affairs Jeff Blum and other Dish lawyers met with FCC representatives last week to discuss the current competitive landscape and importance of spectrum availability in giving new entrants a chance to compete.

“If the FCC wants to promote wireless competition, then meaningful updates to its spectrum screen rules are necessary,” Blum said. “Spectrum is the lifeblood of wireless service, and large incumbents are using their holdings to stifle new entrants and drive up prices.”

In some ways, it’s an interesting turn of events. For many years, Dish was seen as a spectrum hoarder, with speculation being that it was accumulating spectrum so that it could eventually sell it to the highest bidder. It did pursue an IoT network for a while, but then came the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, and the U.S. government decided to support a scenario where Dish uses its spectrum to become a fourth facilities-based carrier, replacing Sprint.

Have the tables turned and now T-Mobile is the hoarder? Fierce posed that question in a recent interview with Blum, and he declined to use that term.

However, he did say Dish met its 70% buildout milestone earlier this year, with more than 16,000 sites up and running and plans for about 20,000 sites on air by the end of this year.

“We are using our spectrum, trying to compete and spectrum policy is important for our ability to be an effective competitor,” he said. “We think the timing is right and the FCC has an opportunity to update the rules and give them some teeth.”  

The FCC’s current spectrum screen rules date back to 2014 and a lot of consolidation has happened since then, he said. Plus, it doesn’t appear as though the rules that are on the books are enforced. In prior filings with the FCC, Dish has referred to a “magenta wall,” which it says balkanizes the 600 MHz band to T-Mobile’s advantage.

T-Mobile has amassed significant holdings in the 600 MHz band, which would be even further enlarged by its acquisition of 600 MHz licenses from Columbia Capital and Comcast. According to Dish, T-Mobile’s 600 MHz spectrum holdings sit in the center of the band, leaving other carriers with sub-optimal, non-contiguous 600 MHz licenses that are more difficult to aggregate.

Dish last week reiterated its request for the FCC to open a rulemaking to review spectrum holding policies, including taking into account spectrum contiguity, and pressed for the commission to not act on applications that might further concentrate the wireless market until the FCC concludes its review of mobile spectrum holdings policies.

“If you’re going to have a screen, it should mean something and it should be enforced,” Blum told Fierce. “What we’re arguing is that if someone exceeds a proposed screen of 25%, there should be a presumption of denial” for acquiring more spectrum unless the carrier can justify exceeding the screen is in the public interest and doesn’t have negative competitive effects.

What others say

Dish pointed to comments from AT&T, Public Knowledge and Open Technology Institute at New America to show support for updating the commission’s spectrum policies.  However, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) told the commission that the most immediate pressing spectrum policy need is for the FCC to focus on reinstating the agency’s auction authority and getting new spectrum in the auction pipeline when the auction authority is reinstated.

A coalition of smaller entities – which includes Canopy Spectrum, Cherry Wireless, Monarch Wireless, N Squared Wireless, Tristar License Group and United Wireless Communications – sided with CCA and told the agency that it shouldn’t dedicate its limited resources to initiating a rulemaking on spectrum aggregation policies.

Mint Mobile & MVNOs  

During last week’s meeting with FCC staff, Dish also brought up T-Mobile’s proposed acquisition of Mint Mobile, saying that even though that transaction doesn’t involve spectrum accumulation, the acquisition of another MVNO by T-Mobile increases T-Mobile’s incentive to discriminate against the remaining independent MVNOs. Since acquiring Boost Mobile, Dish has used T-Mobile’s network under an MVNO arrangement.

In response to the FCC’s October 2023 letter seeking details related to the transaction, T-Mobile supplied a largely redacted response.

“Given the threat of T-Mobile’s proposed acquisition on the MVNO landscape – including MVNOs that rely on T-Mobile’s network, competing MVNOs and wireless customers – the commission should issue a protective order to allow MVNOs and other interested parties appropriate access to the confidential information supplied by T-Mobile,” Dish told the agency.

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