Yesterday’s announcement by AT&T to acquire spectrum from Qualcomm for $1.9 billion suggests yet another move towards the inevitable smartphone-ization of America. The spectrum is in the posh 700 MHz band, noted both for good propagation across long distances as well as effective penetration into buildings. It covers 300 million users across the country, including 70 million people in the tech hungry cities of New York, LA, Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Once the deal is approved, AT&T will devote this spectrum to its 4G LTE network build, in an effort to keep up with the torrid growth of seemingly infinite data demand (We’re looking at you, iPhone addicts).
A few thoughts:
1) General is better than specific: Qualcomm was using this spectrum for its FLO TV offering. Although we love the idea of watching the latest episode of The Jersey Shore or The Young and the Restless on a mobile device, does this offering really require a separate wireless data infrastructure? Was Qualcomm really planning to spend $800 million dollars building out a nationwide network to stream The Deadliest Catch to guys watching 3 inch televisions in waiting rooms? (Answer: YES.) Can’t we just watch TV with a smartphone app using the Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile cellular networks? (Answer: YES.) AT&T’s 4G network on this spectrum will allow for not only the mobile consumption of internet TV, but also video chatting, internet radio, email, social networking, office applications, and whatever else the dotcom gnomes are dreaming up. Even with FLO TV’s death, will we still be able to get CSI: Miami in the palm of our hands? (Answer: YES.)
2) Growing data demand requires growing data supply requires growing $$$: Qualcomm paid $683 million in FCC auctions between 2003 and 2008 for this spectrum, which had previously been allocated for use by analog TV broadcast channel 55. They just sold it yesterday for $1.9 billion. We’ll let the Qualcomm shareholders worry about their ROI and if FLO TV was a good idea or not, but this suggests that the spectrum is much more valuable in 2010 than it was in 2008. With technology analysts like Mary Meeker predicting that mobile internet users will overtake desktop internet users in the next five years, there is no wonder that this valuable 700 MHz block appreciated like crazy in the last few years. Forget gold, the savvy bulls are chasing spectrum to cash in on the mobile revolution. When it comes to social value, 4G mobile data is worth much more than dedicated mobile TV, which was worth much more than TV broadcast channel 55.
Given where the chess pieces are moving in telephony, and how fast they are moving there, where does CMAS fit? Will Cell Broadcast based text alerts make any sense at all in 2012? Are we building a carrier-pigeon infrastructure in a telegraph world? The industry is making big bets that you’ll have a high-bandwidth, multimedia-enabled smartphone by your side all day. What a great platform to deliver a time-critical, content-rich emergency alert. Hopefully, we won’t be so engrossed watching Dancing With the Stars on our BlackBerries to get the message.