Unique Spectrum Sharing Arrangements Impacted Connectivity During COVID-19: Aurora Insight

One of the more unique responses to come out of the COVID-19 crisis this year was the sharing of spectrum among the nation’s wireless carriers to ensure that network capacity didn’t go unused when consumers, remote employees and students needed connectivity most.

Specifically, DISH Network loaned almost all of its spectrum holdings to T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T for 60 days beginning in mid-March via arrangements that were approved by the Federal Communications Commission and later extended into the summer. DISH, which has amassed a large amount of spectrum with which it is working to build out a nationwide 5G network, provided licenses in the 600 MHz band to T-Mobile and 20 megahertz of its AWS-4 and all of its 700 MHZ spectrum to AT&T. Verizon received permission to use AWS-3 spectrum licenses from Northstar Wireless and SNR Wireless, both of which DISH has a financial relationship with.

The sharing arrangements came at a time when mobile operators were reporting surges in network usage as stay-at-home orders forced employees to work from home when possible and students transitioned to distance learning.

“Borrowing of spectrum licenses is very unusual in the wireless industry,” said Aurora Insight in a blog posted on the company’s website. “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there had only been a few temporary spectrum borrowing arrangements. These temporary deals usually involved just one spectrum license in a certain area — such as near a stadium or venue — and only lasted for a day or two.”

With carriers sharing spectrum over longer periods of time and larger geographies, Aurora Insight, which provides radio spectrum measurement and analysis on live networks, wanted to understand the impact these unique arrangements were having. In typical applications, the company’s goal is to help providers and other stakeholders understand the strengths and weaknesses of wireless coverage using real data in specific markets. During COVID-19, the company was able to measure the real-time usage of shared spectrum to see where it was having an impact.

Verizon indicated the spectrum it was granted access to was not needed for everyday operations and instead was retained as ‘insurance’ in case the company couldn’t keep up with demand. However, T-Mobile and AT&T did use the spectrum they were loaned, according to an analysis done by Aurora Insight.

For instance, in Denver, Aurora Insight studied usage in the 600 MHz band held by many companies, the largest of which is DISH which owns 20 megahertz. Without having to make changes to its physical infrastructure, T-Mobile was able to make software changes almost immediately that allowed it to quickly deploy service in the 600 MHz band shared with it by DISH, according to Aurora Insight.

An analysis on March 18 found no activity in that area of the spectrum band in Denver. However, on March 24, just days after the FCC approved the spectrum-sharing arrangement, Aurora Insight detected T-Mobile activity in that portion of the spectrum band.

“Our data science team was able to determine that T-Mobile deployed a 5-megahertz channel in the F Block at 642 MHz spectrum, which is licensed by DISH, and is using that spectrum for its 4G LTE service,” Aurora Insight said.

In another example, Aurora Insight detected usage of DISH’s AWS-4 spectrum in Arlington, Virginia, by AT&T on April 1, just 11 days after the FCC’s order. The company said its analysis concluded that AT&T was broadcasting its 4G LTE in DISH’s spectrum range in the AWS-4 band.

The sharing arrangements continued to come into play during the summer. Aurora Insight detected use of DISH’s spectrum by T-Mobile in Atlanta for LTE and in Baltimore for 5G in the 642-652 MHz range.