FCC signs off on AT&T’s massive 4G spectrum buy

AT&T’s(s t) plan to create a new 4G band using long-neglected airwaves is starting to take final shape. On Tuesday it got approval from the Federal Communications Commission to buy up the 2.3 GHz Wireless Communications Service (WCS) airwaves owned by NextWave, Comcast(s cmsca), Horizon, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

Those licenses cover 82 percent of the U.S. population in the contiguous 48 states, and, combined with AT&T’s current extensive WCS holdings, would give AT&T control over most of the band. There are only a handful of other WCS holders of any note – Sprint(s s) being one – but you can expect AT&T to approach those operators in coming months because gaining complete control of the band is core to AT&T’s plans.

No trespassingFor its long history WCS has been useless for mobile services due to interference issues with nearby satellite radio bands, which today are used solely by Sirius XM(s siri). Earlier this year AT&T and Sirius developed a technical workaround that would allow the two companies to coexist at 2.3 GHz. The catch was that AT&T had to turn the portion of that spectrum bordering on Sirius’s frequencies into a “guard band” over which no cellular signal could pass.

From AT&T’s perspective less usable spectrum is better than no usable spectrum. The FCC approved the new band plan in October, but that still left AT&T with the task of picking up all of the WCS licenses it didn’t own. There are a lot of licensees with spectrum in the new guard band, making their frequencies officially worthless. AT&T had to buy them out.

The end result will be impressive. It will get a 20 MHz swathe of 4G bandwidth nationwide, something it was never able to cobble together at 700 MHz. It will take some time before it can feasibly deploy a network in its newly minted band. It has to get it accepted by the international standards bodies, it needs to convince network equipment and device makers to build 2.3 GHz gear, and it needs to test that gear. But AT&T is saying it could get a network up as early as 2015, which in a carrier terms is actually quite quickly.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Nicolas Raymond