I updated the band & metro area (but not carrier) data for October. I wrote some code that downloads and processes the data, so future data updates should be a bit easier. The data includes the transfer of SpectrumCo and Cox spectrum to Verizon, and Verizon’s exchange with Leap.
Tim Farrar pointed out that bandwidth demands aren’t increasing on a per-device basis (though as more people get smartphones, overall traffic continues to increase). To me it seems obvious this is a result of data caps, and given the performance I’ve had with my iPhone 5 so far it seems like the spectrum crunch is easing (I’ll reserve final judgment until after Christmas and the holidays to see how the LTE networks hold up). The telecoms are pushing hard on things like LTE-Adv, hetnets, microcells, and 40MHz LTE, but what good is all that coverage and 25Mb/s data speed all if you still have a 2GB or 3GB monthly cap for $30/mo? Or 10GB of data to share between 4 people for $120/mo?
Given that both AT&T and Verizon in most areas are only using a 10+10MHz LTE network (20MHz total, or about 20% of their total spectrum capacity), and speeds are still fairly fast for me while out on the go (10Mb/s down, 10Mb/s up on AT&T for me), I don’t see what the big deal is over spectrum anymore. Yeah, we’ll need a little more spectrum, I’d venture to say about another 50MHz per major carrier before 2020, but as long as the prices for data transfer caps stay where they are, people are going to adjust their habits to keep their monthly bills in check. And as the unlimited data plans fade away (due to devices failing and upgrades requiring capped plans), those users are going to have to check their data usage (no more spending all day watching or listening to movies on Netflix over the cellular network).
With the plans currently in place, all four major carriers probably have enough spectrum for the next 4 years. By 2016 the picture will look quite different — AT&T has 20MHz of LTE now, and will have another 20 with WCS, and then whatever it can refarm on PCS (10MHz per market), so an average of 50MHz of LTE per market. Verizon will have 40-60MHz of LTE in metro areas – 20 in 700MHz and 20-40 in AWS. Sprint will likely end up with 20MHz nationwide (PCS G+H blocks) plus what it holds in the SMR spectrum (17MHz avg nationwide), plus Clearwire’s TD-LTE. T-Mo will have 40MHz LTE in the AWS band in most major areas, plus I expect them to pick up more spectrum in the future AWS-3 (extended AWS-1) and the 600MHz incentive auctions. Beyond the big four, we’ll also see Dish Network try to get in the game with their 40MHz of spectrum, building a pure LTE-Adv network, plus whatever they may pick up in auctions.
So why not divert some of the spectrum away from cellular carriers, and towards metro-area wireless broadband? I’d love to see the 70MHz in the 1.3GHz spectrum identified in the recent PCAST report not used for cellular but rather for metro WiFi. Lower frequency, better propagation, set stuff up on light poles and let people hook up to it, use an updated protocol that can handle 100+ devices, etc. Some of the spectrum identified might be better suited for backhauls to sites as well (3.6GHz), rather than tower to handset.
There is still a lot of work ahead for the transition to LTE, a process that will take a long time (3G networks wont be shut off until the early 2020s). And there are spectrum needs for the next few years to manage that and other future transitions. But with the growth in mobile traffic trailing off due to carriers successfully altering consumer behavior, the worries about a future wireless apocalypse doesn’t seem realistic anymore.
Originally, this site was born out of the failed AT&T and T-Mobile merger, I wanted to see how much spectrum AT&T would have had if it were complete.
So now we have T-Mo and MetroPCS merging. It makes sense, T-Mo needs to bolster its LTE spectrum, and Metro is a relatively cheap way to do that.
From here, I’d like to see Sprint (after they get bought by Softbank) to buy Leap/Cricket. From there, T-Mo and Sprint can trade spectrum – MetroPCS’s PCS spectrum can go to Sprint (along with a fair amount of cash), Leap’s AWS spectrum would go to T-Mo to finish bolstering their AWS LTE plans. It would set the stage for more band consolidation — the idea that carriers will want to be on as few bands as possible to make the phones easier and less expensive to engineer, and to make it so future phones can operate on all their bands without needing a 12-band RF switch.
On a forward looking perspective, more auctions in different spectrum bands (600MHz, extended AWS-1, AWS-4, 3.6GHz, etc) means that future phones wont be able to support all these bands, plus the ones they support now, plus support international roaming. So we might see band consolidation. Short term movement in this area would be AT&T and T-Mobile trading their PCS for AWS where available – for example, my map shows San Francisco having 25MHz of T-Mobile spectrum in the PCS band after the MetroPCS acquisition. They could trade 5MHz of that to AT&T for 5MHz AWS spectrum in Dallas, TX, for example.
In the long rung, AT&T and Sprint would have 3G and LTE in PCS, plus a lower frequency (700, SMR respectively) and higher frequency (WCS, BRS respectively). Verizon would have LTE in two places (700, AWS) and T-Mobile would have it in one (AWS). I could see T-Mo try to buy up the 600MHz spectrum to try and have both a high and low band for LTE, but beyond that, I don’t see how much more spectrum is needed for the big four.