FCC auction for prime 5G bandwidth rakes in $21.8B

The month-long FCC auction of 3.5GHz-to-3.55GHz wireless spectrum seems to have favored large providers looking to move ahead with their 5G-network deployments.

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The FCC auction for a prime band of 5G wireless spectrum has attracted $21.8 billion in bids, underscoring the importance of the frequency blocks that range from 3.5GHz to 3.55GHz.

Of the 4,060 blocks available for discrete geographic areas throughout the country, all but 19 sold during the 29-day auction, according to the FCC.

Carriers have been hungrily buying up this mid-range spectrum that some call the Goldilocks Zone because its transmissions propagate over a significant distance and also support high data rates. Earlier this year an auction for blocks of spectrum in the 3.7GHz (C-band) range raised more than $81 billion. 

The list of which service provider bought which blocks won’t be released until January, but industry experts speculate on the likely winners and losers.

AT&T may have been the biggest spender in an attempt to secure mid-range spectrum that becomes available in the spring of 2022, well ahead of the 2023 date when the mid-range spectrum it has already licensed becomes open for use. That earlier date would put it on better footing to roll out 5G services vs. its rival Verizon, whose previously licensed spectrum is set to become available much earlier. “You could argue that there was a much better incentive for AT&T to spend big in [the auction],” said Jason Leigh, a research manager at IDC.

There appeared to be some perhaps-related gamesmanship during the proceedings. One large bidder—possibly Verizon—is thought to have abruptly ceased bidding partway through the auction. That might have nullified the results by making it fail to take in the minimum revenue the auction had to take in, meaning no spectrum for anyone, according to Jason Leigh, a research manager at IDC. If that were the case, it would likely have made the spectrum available even later than next spring. 

Regardless of their precise identities, the biggest spenders at the auction are likely to be large, established wireless service providers, Leigh said. The geographic areas used do divide up the licenses—known as partial economic areas (PEA)—are larger than the alternative—counties—which works against smaller regional wireless providers.

“If you’re a small, utility-based wireless company or wireless ISP, you’re covering a really small footprint, often even less than a county size,” Leigh said. This means that it’s harder for those smaller players to bid efficiently, since they’d have to buy a license for an entire PEA to get the coverage they want, potentially bringing them into competition with vastly better-funded national players.

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