AT&T Buys A Little Head Start On 700 MHz Spectrum

Just as the FCC is pushing back the start of the highly anticipated 700 MHz spectrum auction, comes the news that AT&T couldn’t wait for that spectrum to come on the market and decided to buy up a different chunk of 700 MHz spectrum licenses from Aloha Partners for a mere $2.5 billion. There’s plenty of speculation about what the company is planning to do with the spectrum, with some thoughts that it’s going to ditch its Qualcomm partnership for mobile video and go it alone, but that seems like a market that’s DOA.

Instead, it seems likely that this is just the beginning of AT&T lining up to get its hands on the auctioned spectrum to combine with this batch. There’s been plenty of speculation about who might be the top bidder for the spectrum, with random startups, Google and Apple being tossed around as possible names along with the big telcos. Verizon’s been making plenty of noise (apparently both publicly and behind the scenes), but AT&T has always been up there as well. Now, that additional spectrum becomes even more valuable to AT&T, so it might be time to push up how much AT&T is likely to bid on the auctioned spectrum. And, in the worst case, if AT&T doesn’t win the auction, it can use this new spectrum it bought to try to barter a sharing arrangement — or, alternatively, as Glenn Fleishman posits, be able to keep a locked up network going, while whoever buys the auctioned spectrum will have to be more open. If true, that seems likely to backfire. It could give AT&T an initial leg up, but those walled gardens tend to have long-term problems when competing against open systems.