In response to a recent T-Mobile filing, AT&T this week acknowledged for the first time that, indeed, it is comfortable with upfront spectrum caps for auctions. That represents huge progress for AT&T, which has been arguing for months against any limits for the upcoming 600 MHz low-band auction. Although AT&T takes a shot at the filing that pointed out that New Zealand has joined most of the industrialized world in using aggregation limits in spectrum auctions to promote competition, spur innovation and stimulate economic growth, the key take-way from Joan Marsh’s blog is that upfront auction caps, if applied in a fair, nondiscriminatory manner, would be acceptable. This is indeed a big step forward, considering AT&T’s hard line stance against any caps to date.

That said, we do have to point out there are important differences between the U.S. and New Zealand wireless markets that can justify varied treatment by government decision-makers in the two countries. For example, New Zealand is a sparsely populated country of less than 5 million people, where all three national carriers have a
mix of low- and high-band spectrum holdings. By contrast, the U.S. has a population of more than 300 million people with many densely populated areas.  Moreover, the two largest carriers’ control the lion’s share of valuable low-band spectrum in the U.S., while the two national competitive providers control almost none. With more than 80 percent of the low-band spectrum under the control of AT&T and Verizon, and given the recognized importance of the upcoming 600 MHz auction to the future of wireless competition, of course, the policymakers need to evaluate things differently. We are not New Zealand, AT&T. 

Nevertheless, while New Zealand is vastly different than the United States, its wireless competition policies seem to have inspired AT&T to acknowledge – however reluctantly – that an upfront limit on spectrum aggregation can be fair, pro-competitive, non-discriminatory and evenly applied. Well done Kiwis – we’ll lift a glass of sauvignon blanc to that!