Cable could be left behind if FCC rejects AT&T, T-Mobile deal

Jim BartholdThere is a scene in the classic film Cool Hand Luke where the prisoners, egged on by the relentless Dragline, start getting up from their bunks to head to the bathroom.

"Gettin' up here Carl," one skivvy-clad prisoner after another says as he swings his legs over his bunkbed. The process proceeds for a bit until another boss, wary at so many prisoners getting out of bed to visit the john starts fingering his rifle. Finally, Carl, exasperated by the flow of prisoners protests. "No," he says to one prisoner too many. And the parade ends.

The scene is reminiscent of the FCC and the string of mergers, acquisitions and other partnerships being presented like prisoners wanting to use the bathroom.

"Mergin' up here boss," says the likes of Comcast.

"Buyin' up here boss," says the likes of CenturyLink.

"Joinin' up here boss," says the likes of AT&T and T-Mobile.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has obligingly nodded each time, watching the parade go by. Other bosses, though, most notably Michael Copps, have been less enthralled by the parade. Copps had his finger on the trigger ready to unload on Comcast-NBCUniversal; now, with AT&T swinging its legs over the edge, it could Copps--and the other commissioners--could be ready to say, "No. No more."

For the most part, the cable industry will likely view this potential denial as a blessing. A merged AT&T/T-Mobile could put a hurtin' on any inklings cable will ever have about entering the mobile wireless space; it could put an iPhone in the hands of even more people and an iPad in every living room, although cable seems to have accepted that fact; and it could enrage Verizon enough to revive FiOS.

One thing a dismissed AT&T/T-Mobile merger will do, though, is bring attention to the wireless spectrum MSOs bought and are storing for a rainy day. AT&T has already cleverly connected acquisition of T-Mobile to the need for more spectrum. If the broadcasters won't give it up--and indications are they are not incented to auction it--then somebody else will be targeted for the spectrum needed to drive a national wireless broadband plan.

Who has spectrum? Cable has spectrum.

Who wants spectrum? AT&T wants spectrum.

Who decides who gets the spectrum? The FCC decides who gets the spectrum.

So far no one's been saying, "Givin' it up here boss." But, when it comes to spectrum and taking it, there's no denying that the FCC is the boss and it will get it somehow, and that cable is lying in bed, smoking a cigarette and not doing a thing with what it has.--Jim