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Bidders get a bargain as US C-band auction closes at $81 billion

The clock phase of the headline-hitting C-band spectrum auction in the US has closed with bidders pledging a staggering US$80.92 billion.

While that is a huge sum of money, and a worrying amount for telcos to have to spend ahead of 5G network rollout costs, one analyst surmises that the winning bidders could actually be getting a bargain.

Sasha Javid, a technology and legal specialist, and COO of broadcast data network BitPath, calculates the price per MHz/pop (that’s the price per MHz of spectrum per head of population) at $0.942, which he notes is around 4.3 times the price per MHz/pop generated by last summer’s CBRS auction.

“While that may sound like a huge difference, when you consider that analysts at New Street Research stated that expected range of transmissions in the C-band could be 7.5 times the expected range of transmissions in the CBRS band, which is currently subject to tighter power emission limits, this price differential may actually be a relative bargain,” Javid said, in his analysis of the auction. Further, the winners of the CBRS, or 3.5 GHz, spectrum have to share with government incumbents, he noted.

Javid also compared the C-band auction to the AWS-3 sale process of 2015 that raised $45 billion, but in which the price per MHz/pop came in at around $2.20. Chicago was the most expensive market in the AWS-3 sale at $5.73 per MHz/pop, while the top area in the C-band auction was Red Oak, in Iowa, at $2.835.

“The bottom line is that on a price per MHz/pop basis, prices in this auction were actually reasonable,” Javid said.

Reasonable, maybe. But also huge. While telcos might have got a good deal on a per MHz/pop basis, they still have massive bills to pay.

The clock phase of the auction will be followed by the assignment phase, through which telcos are assigned their position on the spectrum. Assignment phases usually add very little to the final auction total. However, as Javid points out, once $9.7 billion in accelerated clearing costs and an estimated $3.3 billion in relocation costs – these are payments the spectrum winners will make to the satellite incumbents – are added in, the total spend goes up to $93.9 billion.

That’s a figure that leaves all previous spectrum auctions in the dust. Javid, like many others, has drawn parallels with Europe’s 3G auctions in the early 2000s and warned of slower rollout, high prices for consumers, fewer stock buybacks and missed debt-reduction targets for the “lucky” winners.

As it stands, we have little clue as to the identities of the spectrum winners. Much has been made of Verizon’s quest to pick up 100 MHz of A-block spectrum that will be cleared by the satellite companies at the end of this year, and last week T-Mobile made headlines when it announced its intention to tap the bond markets to the tune of $3 billion to fund, amongst other things, the purchase of new spectrum; both are a clear indication of operators’ desire not to be left behind in the 5G race.

The FCC will share the names of the winning bidders after the assignment phase, likely next month. Until then, it’s all just speculation. And there will be plenty of that.


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