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Verizon recently snapped up a war chest full of 28 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum licenses in its $1.05 billion Straight Path buy, and it seems that move was quite timely – not just because of 5G.

In a Monday research note, BTIG’s Walter Piecyk reported Verizon recently began turning up the remaining 10 MHz of its PCS spectrum in New York City. While that’s a good strategy for meeting increasing traffic demand, Piecyk observed the move comes earlier than expected and leaves Verizon with just 20 MHz of open spectrum for LTE in that market. But those 850 MHz airwaves, he noted, are currently tied up delivering CDMS voice and 3G data services. At least 10 MHz of that is expected to continue to serve those functions for the next several years, Piecyk said.

“It’s possible that Verizon still has not converted enough voice traffic to VoLTE to convert that spectrum to LTE because of the record low phone upgrade rate of its subscriber base,” Piecyk wrote, adding the upgrade cycle around the next iPhone could help speed things along. “Over the long term, Verizon could convert 20 MHz of 800 MHz spectrum to LTE and move down to a mere 2.5 x 2.5 MHz CDMA channel to support legacy CDMA users. However, based on our recent discussions with senior Verizon engineers, we believe it will keep at least a 5×5 MHz deployment in the 800 MHz spectrum band for the next 4 years.”

But responding to a request for comment on Piecyk’s note, a Verizon spokesman insisted the carrier is comfortable with its spectrum position, especially coupled with its plans to densify to meet capacity needs.

“20 MHz is a ton of spectrum. We feel good about our spectrum position, our use of LTE Unlicensed spectrum, and our densification plans through small cells, and our in-building deployments. We are also aggressively refarming spectrum, since the vast majority of customer usage is on our LTE network,” the spokesman said. “Our network continues to perform extremely well nationally, and in the New York market.”

The spokesman also indicated Verizon plans to continue its deployments of LTE-Advanced features to improve network performance.

Beyond that, Verizon CFO Matt Ellis revealed during second quarter earnings the carrier’s national network strategy will center on a three-pronged approach that incorporates the launch of new features with densification and lighting up more spectrum.

Ellis said Verizon is currently utilizing just over 50 percent of its low- and mid-band spectrum assets for its 4G LTE Advanced network. The carrier expects to bring more of its PCS spectrum online for LTE, he reported, and is just starting to redeploy its 850 MHz spectrum for LTE “in certain markets.” Additionally, Verizon is deploying its AWS-3 airwaves and expects to launch unlicensed spectrum later this year, Ellis noted.

“Our spectrum deployments in conjunction with multicarrier aggregation technology are enabling us to increase network capacity,” Ellis said on Verizon’s earnings call. “Our overall wireless network integrates features, densification, and spectrum to enable a step function increase in wireless network capacity over the long term.”

According to Ellis, the carrier is still of the opinion that given the high price of spectrum in some of the larger markets, it’s more economical to densify and add capacity using small cells. But that doesn’t mean Verizon won’t pick up extra airwaves when and where it sees fit.

“We continue to add spectrum from the secondary markets, too. So when spectrum is priced at the right level, we continue to be active in that space, too,” Ellis said. “We just look at the relative economics between densifying and adding spectrum.”

So what’s on Verizon’s spectrum wish list? Ellis said the carrier would “certainly be interested in the 3.5 (GHz)” band.

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