This season, television adverts by mobile carriers usually mention their “4G” or “LTE” and intimate that data flows much faster on their network.  The faster 4G data part is true.  But, the “on their network” part is a stretch for some because they have not built out 4G LTE to many consumers.  AT&T reaches 70 million, Verizon 200 million, and T-Mobile a few.  Sprint’s 4G coverage is scant and its recent news releases still focus on 3G deployment.

The 4G technology is a major leap forward in data speed.  It supports business applications compelling enough to create 771,000 new jobs.  Already half of adult consumers have “apps” on their smartphones – “apps” that can work best on 4G.   From the consumer’s perspective, the most salient question are: “how many people have access to 4G?” and “how many can obtain 4G from carriers competing within their neighborhood?” 

AT&T’s plan to cure its spectrum shortage and build out 4G as meaningful competition against Verizon involved buying T-Mobile.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) let its staff report deny AT&T’s request.   Upon denial, Verizon bought spectrum that cable operators had been sitting on, making 4G competition even more difficult to achieve.   

The state of play is this.  The FCC governs 4 major carriers: two who seem to lack the funds needed to build out 4G to most U.S. consumers; Verizon who already did a large 4G build out; and AT&T who could become a serious competitor – but who lacks enough spectrum.  The FCC has set the table for its own next move – getting serious competition will require either big investments into some carriers or spectrum for AT&T.  The public vehemently opposes Federally funded handouts.

There is always some spectrum long devoted to a use that was allegedly essential in some earlier era but which today is not.  Prying spectrum lose from moribund uses is something the political appointees at the FCC can handle and it’s a project that pays off for the American consumer. 

So if you are a consumer-oriented regulator, what would you do?  You could quickly transfer spectrum from less-beneficial to more-beneficial uses at a price and for a timeframe that reimburses the consumer; or you could take your time admiring the problem, check the political winds, and change the subject.   Consumers are calling for an action-oriented FCC. 

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida.  He follows public policy from the consumer’s perspective.