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No clear winners in the latest US spectrum auction

Auction public sale

Millimetre Wave spectrum has been a polarised topic in the US, and now the results are in from the latest auctions, some interesting tales have emerged.

Two spectrum auctions have taken place so far this year in the US, with both results being announced at the same time. $2.7 billion might be a lot to add into the FCC coffers, but it is considerably short of the monstrous amount of cash which was spent ahead of the 3G and 4G connectivity euphoria. Considering the amount of attention which has been given to mmWave, some might have expected this auction to attract more attention.

Strictly speaking, mmWave spectrum should be considered way above what we are talking about here, though the industry seems to have adopted anything above 26 GHz. Here, the two auctions are dealing with assets in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum bands.

Telco 24 GHz licences Total spend 28 GHz licences Total spend
AT&T 831 $982,468,996 N/A N/A
T-Mobile 1,346 $803,212,025 865 $39,288,450
Starry 104 $48,462,700 N/A N/A
US Cellular 282 $126,567,813 408 $129,404,200
Windstream 116 $20,439,360 106 $6,170,990
Verizon 9 $15,255,000 1,066 $505,733,170

The list of companies who have actually won spectrum assets through the auction is quite extensive, many are regionalised, rural telcos. We’ve only included the big ones here, and some interesting also-rans.

Although there still has been a considerable amount of cash spent during the auction period, the results do seem to imply mmWave might not be as crucial as previously believed. These assets might well be able to transmit huge amounts of data, but shorter ranges in comparison to the low- and mid-band bands, and the risk of signals being easily blocked, perhaps have telco fearing to dig too deep into the pockets.

Starting with Verizon, the telco now owns 65% of the available assets in the 28-31 GHz band. Through this auction and previous acquisitions of XO and Straight Path, Verizon has worked up quite a holding, though considering how much it has been beating its chest in the mmWave debate, it is perhaps surprising it low-balled the 24 GHz auction. Here, the firm only owns 1% of the total assets available.

From T-Mobile US’ perspective, the firm has shored up its spectrum breadth. Previously, the firm had not owned any licenses in the mmWave bands and has been the most critical of the potential of the assets. Spending the most in total across the two auctions, it seems the team is attempting to cover all bases, adding to the 600 MHz assets it has accumulated and plans to launch 5G on later this year.

AT&T’s focus was exclusively on the 24 GHz auction, where it spent the most cash, building out its portfolio in the higher spectrum bands.

Sprint is perhaps the biggest omission from the list, not winning any licenses across the two auctions, though it has previously aired its own criticisms of the potential of mmWave. The firm has started its 5G rollout, primarily using its 2.5 GHz spectrum for the launch. Whether its anonymity in this auction is evidence of its confidence in the success of the T-Mobile US merger we’ll leave you to decide.

There is of course life beyond the four major providers, and there have been some interesting wins across both the auctions.

FWA start-up Starry is an interesting one, winning 104 licenses in the 24 GHz auction. At the Big 5G Event in Denver this year, Starry COO Alex Moulle-Berteaux suggested the business was able to operate at such low prices while scaling in new regions was down to making best use of unlicensed spectrum assets. Spending $48 million this time around suggests a slightly new approach to delivering connectivity for the start-up.

These licences are now owned by Starry in 51 Partial Economic Areas (PEA), suggesting the business could be on the verge of much more aggressive geographical expansion. Details of where in the US Starry has won are not available just yet, but soon enough there will be much more colour on the plans. The assets might be used to shore-up performance in existing markets, or fuel geographical expansion.

US Cellular is another interesting case from the auctions, spending more than $250 million on 690 licenses. The telco currently has a presence in 23 markets across the US, with more than six million subscribers. It certainly isn’t going to challenge on a nationwide scale, however, with a stronger presence in the mmWave segment it could prove to be a worthy pain in the side to the big four telcos.

Windstream is the final ‘also-ran’ which we want to look at here. Spending just over $25 million on 222 licenses across both of the auctions, the team appear to be targeting the emerging FWA segment in some of the regions which are often overlooked in the US.

The firm launched a fixed-wireless access to business customers several years ago, and more recently has added products for consumers. In states such as Nebraska and Iowa, Windstream has pointed out signals can travel further thanks to “fairly flat topology”, while the mmWave assets will help the firm achieve the higher speeds demanded by enterprise and consumers alike.

What is worth noting is this is not the end of the spectrum auction bonanza. Over the next couple of months, the hype will start building for a combined auction in the upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz bands.

That said, at the moment, the mmWave euphoria is appearing to be somewhat of a let-down.

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