Shocker! Verizon was the big spender in FCC's 5G mmWave auction

Verizon spent the most money of any participant in the FCC's biggest-ever millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum auction. The operator spent roughly $1.6 billion for a total of 4,940 spectrum licenses across the country.

AT&T was a close second, however, spending a total of around $1.2 billion on 3,267 spectrum licenses.

T-Mobile – which was widely expected to walk away with the bulk of the licenses in the auction – came in a distant third, with $873 million in total spending across 2,384 spectrum licenses.

Table 1: Top 10 spenders in Auction 103

Bidder (Bidding entity) Net payment Number of licenses won
1. Verizon (Straight Path Spectrum) $1,624,101,808 4,940
2. AT&T (FiberTower Spectrum Holdings) $1,185,734,976 3,267
3. T-Mobile (T-Mobile License) $872,791,192 2,384
4. Columbia Capital (High Band License Co) $306,711,619 52
5. Dish Network (Window Wireless) $202,532,574 2,651
6. U.S. Cellular (United States Cellular Corporation) $146,342,281 237
7. Sprint (ATI Sub) $113,948,318 127
8. (Monarch Wireless) $29,461,717 173
9. Windstream (Windstream Services) $13,750,040 32
10. (NKCN) $6,718,504 68
Source: Federal Communications Commission.

(For those who are interested, companies often participate in FCC auctions under "bidding entities" and it's sometimes difficult to connect the bidding entity to the company that's actually doing the bidding. For example, Verizon is bidding under the "Straight Path Spectrum" entity; Verizon is listed as the "contact organization" for Straight Path Spectrum in its FCC filings.)

Operators including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular are using mmWave spectrum in part for their 5G network buildouts. However, the use of mmWave spectrum comes with a big caveat: Although it can transmit massive amounts of data at blistering speeds, signals in mmWave bands can only travel a few thousand feet. As a result, mmWave 5G buildouts have mostly been confined to crowded downtown areas and aren't expected to reach into suburban or rural areas anytime soon.

Twists and turns
That Verizon bought so much mmWave spectrum in the FCC's latest auction – dubbed Auction 103 – comes as a surprise, considering the operator has already spent billion of dollars on mmWave licenses from Straight Path, XO Communications, Nextlink, Sunshine, Highland Holdings and others, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in other recent FCC mmWave spectrum auctions.

All that spending apparently indicates Verizon's interest in doubling down on mmWave spectrum – the operator earlier this year said it plans to double the number of cities where it will offer its mmWave-powered "ultra wideband" 5G service. The operator's latest license purchases could indicate its mmWave coverage area will expand further across the country.

Another surprise in the auction is Sprint's participation, and its spending. Due to its deteriorating financial situation, the operator hasn't participated in virtually any of the FCC's recent spectrum auctions, but it apparently has recently discovered an appetite for mmWave spectrum. However, based on the company's relatively paltry haul in Auction 103 – a total of just 127 licenses – it clearly doesn't have grand ambitions.

Further, Sprint and T-Mobile's auction winnings are poised to be combined under the proposed merger between the companies that they hope to close by April 1.

Finally, another surprise in Auction 103 is the $203 million spent by Dish Network. The company has spent billions of dollars over the past decade amassing an enormous war chest of spectrum licenses in a variety of bands. And, if the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile is consummated, the company has agreed to put some of those licenses to work with a nationwide, commercial 5G network.

However, that endeavor will undoubtedly be expensive, and it has generated worries among investors of Dish's ability to pull it off financially and operationally. As a result, many had expected Dish to pull back from its spectrum purchases in order to direct its spending at its promised wireless network.

But Dish's appetite for spectrum, it seems, is virtually limitless.

Auction details
The FCC released the identity of the bidders in Auction 103 Thursday. The auction ended last week with total bids of $7.6 billion. (However, that total is split between roughly $3 billion in incentive payments for existing licensees in the bands and $4.5 billion in net FCC proceeds.) The agency said 28 bidders in Auction 103 won more than 99.9% of the event's available licenses – indicating continued interest among telecom companies in mmWave.

"Auction 103 was a tremendous success, and we look forward to building on this positive result with the 3.5GHz auction, which is scheduled to begin on June 25, and the C-band auction, which is scheduled to begin on December 8," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement.

Auction 103 is the FCC's third mmWave spectrum auction, and by far its biggest, both in terms of the money raised and the amount of spectrum available. The FCC's recent Auction 101 for 28GHz spectrum licenses raised $703 million in total bids, while its Auction 102 for 24GHz licenses raised $2 billion in bids. Both auctions ended in 2019. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile spent the most money on spectrum licenses during the FCC's two previous mmWave spectrum auctions. The agency's Auction 103 stretched across the 37GHz, 39GHz and 47GHz bands, and offered up a whopping 3,400MHz of total spectrum. It was "the largest spectrum auction in American history," according to the FCC.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

COMMENTS Add Comment
[email protected] 3/12/2020 | 2:57:24 PM
Repeaters and Reflectors This is great news for the deployment of 5G. Reflectors and Repeaters will be critical for successful mm-wave deployments, both indoors and outdoors. Metawave makes all analog passive reflectors (smart mirrors) to bend and direct signals into the shadows as well as active repeaters to boost signals through glass, down hallways, and along city streets. #metawave #5G #repeaters #reflectors #AI

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