AT&T confirmed it is deploying Band 29 spectrum in a handful of key markets after Cellular Insights’ analyst Milan Milanovic called out the addition of those airwaves in New York City on Twitter.
According to a company representative, the operator is rolling out the spectrum “in a number of markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Northern California and parts of New England.” AT&T said the deployments provide “enhanced LTE coverage” to customers in those areas.
In this case, Band 29 refers to AT&T’s D-block and E-block holdings in the 700MHz band. The operator currently owns both blocks as a pair in markets covering 25 per cent of the US population, but only one of those two blocks in the remaining 75 per cent of markets.
The deployments mark a change from AT&T’s previous characterisation of the band as one in limited use. Milanovic said he first began to notice AT&T’s use of Band 29 around 18 months ago, but sites using the spectrum were “extremely rare.”
In a research note, BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk noted AT&T’s movement on Band 29 could be a plus for satellite TV company Dish Network, because it owns the other half of AT&T’s Band 29 pair in markets covering the remaining 75 per cent of the US population. Dish Network’s Band 29 holdings account for just 4 per cent of its spectrum assets, but could bring in a hefty sum of nearly $1 billion from an interested party like AT&T, Piecyk said.
“There could be an opportunity for Dish to sell or swap its Band 29 spectrum with AT&T. We value Dish’s Band 29 spectrum at $969 million, after tax,” Piecyk wrote, adding: “Dish’s Band 29 spectrum has unique value to AT&T, which can combine it with its Band 29 spectrum for immediate use. Band 29 has been in iPhones since 2014 with the introduction of the iPhone 6/6+, so the immediate benefit to AT&T is even greater than Band 66.”
Jefferies equity analyst Mike McCormack agreed a pairing between AT&T and Dish Network could benefit both sides. While a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile is one potential catalyst which could push AT&T and Dish Network together, another factor is the latter’s need to meet government build out requirements for those airwaves in the next few years.
“It is a foregone conclusion that Dish has no intention of meeting interim build requirements for its AWS-4 (and smaller 700MHz) spectrum, implying the company will need to build to 70 per cent of covered POPs by March 2020. We continue to believe this gives Dish ample time to explore strategic options while laying the foundation for a potential build of its own,” McCormack wrote in a research note.
“Dish CEO, Charlie Ergen, has consistently indicated that an ideal build would leverage a partner that was also constructing a network in order to benefit from deployment synergies,” he continued, adding: “With AT&T planning to touch all of its towers in the coming 18 to 24 months as part of its FirstNet contract, we believe they would make an ideal partner; Dish management also noted that any build would need to begin by late 2018.”
AT&T did not comment on whether the operator is eyeing Band 29 for its FirstNet “one touch” truck rolls. The operator previously said it plans to begin its FirstNet build in early opt-in states by the end of this year.