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T-Mobile Escalates Fight With AT&T Over Airwaves Buy

T-Mobile asks the FCC to reject AT&T’s plans to its expand network in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio.

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T-Mobile found a new way to mess with rival AT&T Tuesday, asking federal regulators to reject a plan by the wireless giant to expand its network in parts of Kentucky.

T-Mobile filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to reject the deal, saying essentially that it’s not a good idea to let AT&T get bigger there.

Last month, AT&T asked the FCC for approval to acquire some airwaves licenses in three rural or semi-rural markets currently held by East Kentucky Network, which operates under the name Appalachian Wireless. The licenses cover parts of Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio and could be used to expand AT&T’s LTE network.

Given the FCC last year passed rules for an upcoming auction designed to promote more competition in the wireless market, the deal should be scuttled, T-Mobile said, because of “harms that result from precisely the type of excessive spectrum concentration AT&T proposes in its application.”

The acquisition would give AT&T more than a third of the best airwaves for LTE services in the market areas of Huntington-Ashland and Lexington-Fayette, T-Mobile says in its petition. In Lexington, AT&T already controls more than half of the so-called low-band airwaves licenses, T-Mobile complains.

“T-Mobile needs access to low-band spectrum in order to better compete in that area against AT&T’s commanding market share,” the company said in the filing. T-Mobile said it has about 42,000 subscribers in the Lexington area, which equates to a 4 percent share of the market.

T-Mobile did try to acquire those licenses, a T-Mobile spokesman said via email, adding that “once again, AT&T played keep away with low-band spectrum, foreclosing the ability of us to compete.”

Small acquisitions by AT&T or Verizon of licenses like this from smaller carriers generally don’t get much attention. But T-Mobile is currently waging a lobbying fight to get federal regulators to set aside more airwaves for smaller carriers in an auction of TV airwaves scheduled next year.

The FCC already opted to set aside a portion of airwaves for bidding by T-Mobile, Sprint and other smaller carriers in the auction. But T-Mobile wants a larger chunk of licenses to be set aside for bidding by small carriers, saying that’s the only thing that will bring more competition in the wireless market. The FCC is expected to make a decision on the request in the next few weeks.

AT&T and Verizon have been pushing back against that proposal, saying there’s no reason to set aside more airwaves for smaller carriers, particularly T-Mobile and Sprint, which have well-funded foreign owners in Deutsche Telekom and SoftBank, respectively.

In response to T-Mobile’s petition, AT&T put up a blog post entitled “T-Mobile Should Stop Complaining and Start Investing in Rural America.” AT&T said the acquisition would allow it to improve its network in those areas and offer “faster and higher quality services to its rural customers.” It also wouldn’t run afoul of FCC limits on acquiring certain airwaves, the company said.

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