The “spectrumscape” of licensed wireless holdings — meaning who owns what spectrum in which areas — can be complex, especially over periods of time. Blocks of spectrum get broken up and re-purposed, the FCC authorizes new auctions, counties are partitioned and spectrum ownership gets sold or acquired. Determining how current spectrum holdings by the Tier 1 operators could affect business strategies on a nationwide and market-by-market basis can be challenging.
One way to simplify this complexity is to view changes in spectrum ownership over the years. Past is often prologue to the future. A high-level look at how carriers have responded to the need for more capacity (and thus spectrum) in their networks can indicate how well-positioned they are to meet their current and future spectrum needs. Additionally, analysis of the growth of various frequency bands by different operators can help key industry players support the present and future needs of the wireless industry. For example, it helps companies like CommScope analyze which frequency bands need to be supported in future base station antennas.
Let’s take a look at the licensed wireless spectrum gains and losses for the four largest U.S. network operators from the end of 2015 through early 2018. To do so, we’ll use the Comsearch Spectrum Atlas interactive tool, which provides a complete national map of all spectrum holdings. We’ll break the results out by county, by operator, and into low/mid and high bands to see what insights this can bring to the changing spectrumscape as the industry migrates toward 5G.
The Low/Mid Bands: 600 MHz to 2700 MHz
Let’s start with a composite look at all Tier 1 operators in the low and mid bands, broken out by county. This map shows the spectrum difference in megahertz, meaning how many megahertz of spectrum have been added. We can see that the Tier 1 mobile carriers have been adding nicely to their spectrum holdings in the low and mid band ranges across most counties between 2015–2018.
When we break this map out by operator, we see that T-Mobile has mostly positive gains in counties across the country, adding in more areas and with larger amounts of spectrum.
AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, on the other hand, have much less overall additions to their spectrum holdings, with a give and take most likely due to spectrum swaps between the operators.
Beyond the Tier 1 carriers, other notable companies with significant spectrum additions include Dish Network and Comcast. They both gained 600 MHz spectrum in the recent incentive auction.
The High Bands: 24 GHz to 40 GHz
Now let’s look at the high bands. We’ll again start with a combined look at all the Tier 1 carriers, which shows significant spectrum increases. Some counties even saw spectrum additions as high as 2500 megahertz over this timeframe.
Again, let’s explore how each of the operators are faring. AT&T shows significant gains in a number of markets.
T-Mobile has some gains in a few markets.
Sprint shows no activity.
Verizon clearly has the most additions in counties across the country.
Verizon’s acquisitions of XO/Nextlink and StraightPath are the reason for their substantial gain, while AT&T’s acquisition of FiberTower constitutes most of their spectrum gain. T-Mobile made some earlier acquisitions of 28 GHz and 38 GHz spectrum in relatively smaller chunks in just a few markets. Sprint has not yet participated in high-band spectrum acquisitions, perhaps due to their significant mid-band spectrum holdings in the 2.5 GHz band.
So what does all this mean? Clearly, operators are increasing their spectrum holdings to meet the ever increasing traffic demand on their networks. They are also making moves in anticipation of new oppportunities that future 5G networks present. While growth in the low and mid-band spectrum is still very important to operators, we see strong indication that use of high-band spectrum is more critical to their plans than ever before. Assessment of the changes to their spectrum holdings can inform business strategies for companies that support and rely on these wireless networks.
As the wireless industry evolves to 5G, spectrum holdings will continue to change. Keeping up-to-date on the spectrumscape is important. Tools such as Comsearch’s Spectrum Atlas enable evaluation on a nationwide basis and can drill down to specific market areas for detailed analysis.
Laura Fontaine is director, spectrum management, at ComSearch.