Comcast was among the top winners in the FCC's historic broadcast incentive auction, taking home more than $1.7 billion worth of spectrum holdings. So what happens next?
First and foremost, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) knows it can use the new 600MHz spectrum to ease its reliance on Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s network for the upcoming Xfinity Mobile service. The cable company is exercising an MVNO agreement with Verizon to support Xfinity Mobile, but that means that Comcast has to pay Verizon every time a subscriber makes a phone call or tries to access the Internet when WiFi isn't available. Having its own spectrum means Comcast will be able to offload some of that traffic onto its own mobile network and therefore pay Verizon less money. (See Xfinity Mobile Isn't a WiFi Phone Service.)
Second, Comcast can use the 600MHz spectrum to put further pricing pressure on the wireless market as a whole. Because Comcast already has significant wireline assets in communities all around the country, it has the backhaul capacity in place to support significant increases in wireless broadband demand. In other words, Comcast only has to layer wireless service on top of the wireline capacity it already has in order to serve growing demand, whereas the traditional wireless carriers are looking at potentially huge costs to buy up backhaul capacity to support their customers' evolving needs. That wireless layer is cheaper than last-mile wired network infrastructure. (See Analysts More Than Bullish on Comcast MVNO.)
Third, Comcast could turn its newfound wireless winnings into the first step in a broader spectrum grab. Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) and T-Mobile US Inc. paid more than $6.2 billion and nearly $8 billion respectively for spectrum in the latest incentive auction, and both companies are considered possible acquisition targets. Given Comcast's existing assets, however, this course of action seems unlikely in the near term. The cable company has much cheaper avenues for expanding in the wireless market.
Fourth and finally, Comcast can use its new spectrum to build expertise in operating a mobile network as wired and wireless technologies continue to converge. Particularly with 5G right around the corner, it makes sense for Comcast to boost its ability to deliver connectivity to consumers in a number of different ways. Mobile delivery is very different from the broadband business Comcast's in today, and there will be a learning curve as the cable company figures out how to operate. Better that Comcast start early and learn from mistakes than try to compete in mobile only when 5G is already here. (See Cable Sees Wireless Opps in Partners, Smart Services.)
For now, Comcast isn't saying much of anything with regard to its spectrum plans. The company's official statement reads: "In the Forward auction, Comcast invested $1.7 billion to acquire spectrum in the markets identified in the FCC's Public Notice. Comcast cannot comment further on the Forward auction results until the FCC's anti-collusion quiet period ends."
However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's quiet period will end soon, and by then perhaps Comcast will be ready to expound further on its wireless ambitions. There's no question those ambitions run high.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading