by Andrew J. Shepherd
Sprint 4G Rollout Updates
Thursday, September 3, 2015 - 3:28 AM MDT
Ladies and gentlemen, C Spire has left the building. In Memphis. Or so it seems.
Based on an FCC spectrum lease filing that came down the pike earlier this week, Cellular South dba C Spire has applied to lease all of its spectrum in Memphis to Sprint. S4GRU has not been able to confirm yet, but this almost certainly appears to signal a C Spire exit from Memphis -- its largest urban market into which it expanded just a few years ago.
Disclaimer: the FCC ULS (Universal Licensing System) -- which is the parent database for all spectrum licenses and applications and is what I access directly to do spectrum research -- is down for a server migration over the Labor Day holiday weekend, not back online until sometime next week. In fact, the FCC ULS went offline right in the midst of my research a night ago. Fortunately, I was able to gather the relevant info on the Memphis spectrum to be leased to Sprint. However, the entirety of the transaction also involves Sprint leasing spectrum elsewhere back to C Spire -- more on that later. As more information becomes available, we will publish an update or a follow up, if warranted.
In Memphis, the spectrum to be leased to Sprint is the PCS 1900 MHz C2 block 15 MHz (7.5 MHz FDD) and Lower 700 MHz A block 12 MHz (6 MHz FDD) licenses. From a CDMA2000 standpoint, the PCS would be band class 1 spectrum; the Lower 700 MHz is irrelevant for CDMA2000. For LTE, the PCS would be band 2 or band 25 spectrum, which Sprint would utilize as band 25, and the Lower 700 MHz would be band 12, which Sprint has not held in any other market. That last piece is a key point -- more on that later, too.
At this point, S4GRU cannot definitively comment on C Spire's motivation to leave its largest market -- if that indeed is what is happening. Albeit, similar regional operator USCC faced struggles with expansion into Chicago and St. Louis, eventually closing down those markets and selling off spectrum to Sprint. Likely, that is what is happening in Memphis.
Along possibly related lines, USCC faced spectrum constraints with launching LTE in Chicago and St. Louis, potentially rendering them dead end markets in the current LTE focused environment. From Spectrum Gateway's interactive map, we can see that UHF channel 51 presently conflicts with Lower 700 MHz A block deployment in Memphis. With its Lower 700 MHz A block license encumbered and decent but not large PCS spectrum holdings in Memphis, C Spire likely faced a difficult road to LTE there.
S4GRU may try to seek official comment from C Spire on this matter. Presumably, though, C Spire will address the Memphis issue in the coming days, providing some clarity on the matter. If C Spire is truly exiting the Memphis market, it will have to notify its existing subscribers.
All of that ambiguity aside, Sprint's motivation is clearly understandable. After the USCC transaction in Chicago and the Revol transaction in Cleveland and Indianapolis, Memphis is one of the last few top markets where Sprint holds only 20 MHz total of PCS A-F block spectrum -- even more dire, that 20 MHz in Memphis is broken up into two non contiguous 10 MHz (5 MHz FDD) blocks. Though a minimal amount of info has changed in the intervening years or decades since I did the pro bono work, you can view some of my Sprint spectrum documentation, including Memphis, in this spreadsheet, this map, and this spreadsheet.
What that means presently for Sprint in Memphis is additional guard bands are required because of the interrupted spectrum blocks and no chance of LTE carrier bandwidth greater than 5 MHz FDD, nor any band 25 second carrier until after significant CDMA2000 thinning or shutdown. But this spectrum from C Spire changes everything.
At the very least, Sprint will have increased its PCS A-F block Memphis spectrum holdings from just two non contiguous 10 MHz (5 MHz FDD) blocks to those two blocks plus another non contiguous 15 MHz (7.5 MHz FDD) block. A band 25 second carrier in Memphis is coming down the river.
However, what I think -- and what other S4GRU staff members have independently concurred -- is that Sprint will swap this C Spire spectrum with AT&T.
First, the spectrum lease application with C Spire is for a long term, de facto transfer lease. We could be wrong, but this lease smacks of a prelude to a full sale of C Spire spectrum licenses in Memphis to Sprint. In that case, Sprint would have options to rearrange its position in the PCS band plan. Primarily, both Sprint and AT&T would be advantaged to swap their PCS C1 and PCS C2 blocks for greater contiguity for both parties. Continue reading.
Just as S4GRU documented in the Columbus, OH market a month ago, the PCS G block LTE 5 MHz FDD carrier probably would be redeployed as a 10 MHz FDD carrier bridged across portions of the PCS C block and PCS G block. That still would leave room in the potentially acquired spectrum for up to two additional CDMA2000 carriers, which would replace two of the three CDMA2000 carriers lost in the PCS D block or PCS B5 block, one of which would be refarmed for an LTE 5 MHz FDD carrier to ensure continued LTE access to any early band 25 devices that do not support LTE in anything but 5 MHz FDD -- the same process that we saw in Columbus.
For illustration of the present, post transaction, and possible PCS spectrum future in Memphis, see this S4GRU graphic:
Other possibilities exist for Sprint and AT&T spectrum "horse trading" in Memphis -- such as Sprint getting the AT&T PCS F block in exchange for effectively returning to AT&T the PCS B5 disaggregation that Sprint acquired from AT&T predecessor AT&TWS in a spectrum transaction over a decade ago. But those other spectrum transaction possibilities would be more disruptive to current service, so I and other S4GRU staff do not think those band plan rearrangements likely in the near future.
To start to wrap matters up for now -- but probably to be continued later -- that Memphis BEA Lower 700 MHz A block is the proverbial elephant in the room. As noted earlier, that is band 12 spectrum. And Sprint now has plenty of band 12 compatible devices previously released, currently available, or upcoming. Indeed, band 12 is part of the CCA/RRPP device procurement plan.
However, we do not expect Sprint to deploy band 12 in Memphis. The Lower 700 MHz A block is not immediately compatible with Sprint's Network Vision infrastructure, and it is currently encumbered by adjacent UHF broadcasting. If, as S4GRU expects, a full spectrum transfer ultimately results from this Memphis spectrum lease, then look for Sprint to flip the Lower 700 MHz A block license to T-Mobile, which has shown its motivation and money to get UHF channel 51 broadcasters relocated -- or paid to accept some adjacent channel interference.
As an exchange for that low band spectrum -- which T-Mobile has now started to value so greatly -- Sprint could gain some of the excess T-Mobile-Metro PCS spectrum that S4GRU pointed out almost three years ago, shoring up Sprint's PCS A-F block 20 MHz holdings in the likes of important markets San Francisco, Atlanta, or Miami.
To return to and conclude with C Spire, our article starter, we cannot precisely document what SMR 800 MHz, PCS 1900 MHz, and/or BRS/EBS 2600 MHz spectrum C Spire will lease from Sprint. Because the FCC ULS frustratingly is out of commission for several more days. Cursory examination when the leases were still accessible online, though, did not indicate any major markets. Rather, this could be tied in with a CCA/RRPP agreement to expand Sprint coverage -- since C Spire infrastructure and handsets typically do not support band 26 nor band 41.
So, the real prize in this transaction is spectrum in Memphis. My apologies to Marc Cohn for ham handedly paraphrasing his 1990s ballad, but it is also all too fitting…in those blue suede shoes...
Leasing in Memphis -- leasing in Memphis
Sprint's getting PCS on and off of Beale
Leasing in Memphis -- leasing in Memphis
How does that really make you feel?
Sources: FCC, Marc Cohn