Yesterday AT&T announced that it would invest an additional $14 billion in the next three years to expand its 4G LTE network to cover 300 million people and expand its wired all-IP broadband infrastructure to 75 percent of its customer locations throughout its 22-state wired service area. For many consumers, this investment will provide their first opportunity for access to high-speed broadband at home. For many others, it will provide their first opportunity to make a choice among competing providers of high-speed broadband services. This impressive commitment to transition outdated communications infrastructure to an all-IP future will benefit millions of consumers and accelerate our Internet transformation nationwide.
This plan offers an opportunity for the newly reelected Administration and Democratic victors in the Senate as well. By announcing plans to invest $14 billion in the U.S. economy the day after President Obama was reelected and the Democratic party increased its representation in the Senate, AT&T expressed its confidence in the leadership of the President and the Democratic party to move our economy forward. This should be especially welcome at a time when many American companies are investing their dollars overseas, which serves to weaken us while it strengthens our global competitors. It also allows the President to show progress on economic development and infrastructure modernization beginning on day one of his new term, which will continue until shortly before his legacy era begins.
The investment also provides the FCC with an opportunity to fulfill its vision of universal access to broadband services. The National Broadband Plan recognized that meeting our broadband goals would require a combination of significant private investment in more densely populated areas and public support in areas with low population density. AT&T expects its investment will provide high-speed broadband Internet access to 99 percent of customer locations in its wired service area. Its plan would significantly reduce the size of the broadband availability gap in 22 states and simplify the FCC’s efforts to administer the new Connect America Fund.
AT&T’s plans would also fulfill the promise of the WCS spectrum band at 2.3 GHz, which lay largely fallow for over a decade due to the potential for harmful interference to satellite radio. The FCC recently adopted an order resolving those concerns largely in accordance with a commercial agreement between AT&T and Sirius-XM that enables the use of 20 MHz of spectrum for mobile and 10 MHz of spectrum for fixed broadband nationwide. AT&T is seeking FCC authority to acquire a nationwide footprint in the band, which would presumably be used to support the 4G LTE deployment described in today’s announcement.
Given the extraordinary benefits of this significant investment in our infrastructure and America’s future, one would expect the announcement would be met with universal praise – except universal praise doesn’t create trendy news.
David Goldman at CNNMoney accuses AT&T of lying to regulators last year about its spectrum needs during the review of its transaction with T-Mobile. Mr. Goldman believes it was obvious that AT&T would be able to negotiate a deal resolving a decade-long dispute over harmful interference issues in the 2.3 GHz band to create alternate spectrum supporting 4G deployment. Hindsight is 20/20. Similar to analysts who thought LightSquared could easily resolve complex interference issues in the L-band, Mr. Goldman grossly underestimates the difficulty in resolving these types of interference issues and the ongoing challenges involved in deploying and operating networks in such spectrum.
Stacy Higginbotham at Gigaom also managed to spin the announcement negatively. She described the $14 billion investment as a “fringe benefit” that would “leave rural America behind.” But she doesn’t say whom rural Americans would be left standing behind. Themselves? AT&T’s plan would provide 99 percent of homes in AT&T’s wired service area with access to all-IP infrastructure delivering high-speed broadband Internet. I doubt Ms. Higginbotham would suggest that we deny high-speed broadband Internet access to millions of consumers, including rural consumers, because the last one percent might require universal service funding. (Note that GigaOM’s founder, Om Malick, embraced the deployment of new technology, albeit with bittersweet emotions.)
The IP-transition will undoubtedly involve some disruption to existing services and require updated regulations. But such disruptions are an inherent part of progress and have been successfully overcome with minimal impact in the previous DTV and digital wireless transitions. With its recent experience in these earlier transitions, I am confident the FCC can enable a similarly smooth transition from switched telephone networks to all-IP networks, and now is the time to get started. The benefits of the transition to consumers and the economy are too great for the FCC to wait any longer.
This is an updated cross-post from the Communications Liberty and Innovation Project blog that was posted yesterday evening.