5G auction: AT&T and Dish spend billions while Verizon sits out

With significant high-throughput frequencies auctioned off to carriers, broad availability of the fastest 5G services are on the horizon.

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The usual suspects—bar one—spent big on the latest FCC auction for 5G spectrum, with AT&T and Dish headlining the winning bidders.

At the top of the list was AT&T, which spent over $9 billion to acquire 1,624 licenses in the 3.45-3.98GHz range, according to the FCC. Each license represents the right to use 10MHz of that spectrum in a given geographical subdivision of the country.

Close behind AT&T at $7.3 billion was Dish, which acquired 1,232 individual licenses. T-Mobile spent almost $2.9 billion on 199 licenses, and U.S. Cellular spent nearly $580 million on 380 licenses to shore up its own 5G spectrum holdings.

Conspicuous in its absence from the list of winning bidders was Verizon, which held its fire in the auction despite the general spectrum crunch facing national wireless providers hoping to expand their 5G footprints.

That makes sense, however, in light of the company’s huge buys in earlier 5G-spectrum auctions in the C-band (3.7GHz to 3.98GHz), according to Jason Leigh, a research manager at IDC. “They spent $45 billion in the C-band auction, and a lot of their spectrum [from that auction] becomes available earlier, so the urgency wasn’t there,” he said.

Conversely, it’s not surprising that AT&T was the big spender in the recent 3.45GHz-3.98GHz auction because despite spending $23 billion on C-band spectrum, only a small portion of it will be available this year, he said.

New 5G-suitable spectrum, particularly in the mid-band (about 2GHz to 6GHz) is badly needed in order to make 5G more meaningfully available, said Leigh. Initial deployments have failed to impress, most notably in terms of average throughput. While 5G speeds of 100Mbps or so have been touted, only T-Mobile has routinely beaten that mark, according to the latest research from Opensignal; Verizon and AT&T average a little over 50Mbps. That’s compared to the US average for LTE of nearly 40Mbps.

LTE lives in several different bands that are generally lower frequency than most 5G. That means each base station can cover a wider area, but uses smaller channels, which translates into lower average throughput.

By contrast, 5G uses a wider range of frequencies, from the lower end near LTE, up to the 50-60GHz millimeter-wave range. There’s a wide gap between millimeter-wave, high-speed 5G deployments, which have been rolled out in very limited areas, and the much broader coverage of lower-frequency 5G—the type that Leigh refers to as “maybe a step up” from LTE.

“The more mid-band gets available [to carriers], the better the performance is going to be,” he said. “You’re going to see speeds more in the three-digit (MB/s) range once [it] gets deployed, and I think a lot of business users are going to get more excited about 5G.”

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