5G mid-band spectrum winners receive their FCC licenses

5G spectrum in the 3.45GHz range that the FCC auctioned off has been turned over to wireless carriers including the three big spenders AT&T, DISH, and T-Mobile.

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The winners of a critical FCC auction for midband spectrum that ended last November have received their official grants of license to use the airwaves for which they spent a total of $22.4 billion, the FCC announced Wednesday.

A total of 4,041 licenses were issued to 23 different bidders, according to the commission. Licensees hoping to use the spectrum for 5G rollouts still have to reimburse incumbent non-federal users of the band, which had been in use for radiolocation purposes, and the FCC said that further details about those costs would be laid out in a subsequent filing.

Auction 110 saw the government sell off 100MHz of spectrum in the midband — around the 3.45GHz range — divided into 10 10MHz blocks for each Partial Economic Area or PEA that the FCC adopted in 2014. (There are 416 PEAs covering the US, meaning that 119 specific licenses were not sold in the auction.)

AT&T top spender for 5G spectrum

The spectrum is expected to be used mostly by major wireless telecom companies to provide 5G service around the country. Hence, prices for spectrum in sparsely populated PEAs were relatively low, while prices for blocks covering major cities saw enormous bids. The auction's top spender was AT&T, which spent more than $9 billion for numerous spectrum blocks covering major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in addition to many licenses in less populated areas.

Close behind was DISH Network, which spent more than $7.3 billion on a similar range of spectrum across both major population centers and more rural areas. T-Mobile also snapped up important spectrum blocks in both high- and low-population areas, for a total spend of almost $2.9 billlion.

Mid-band spectrum is thought to be particularly valuable to carriers rolling out 5G because it sits in a "goldilocks zone" of the airwaves. Particularly high frequencies — in, for example, the millimeter-wave bands of 45GHz and above — tend to have much wider available channels, and can thus support extremely high levels of throughput, but are limited in the range at which they usefully propagate. Lower frequencies, in the sub-GHz range, by contrast, can cover enormous geographic areas from a single access point, but generally feature smaller channels and thus, can't provide the same level of throughput.

The midband, then, between roughly 2GHz and 6Ghz, is a sweet spot for wireless service providers, since it features both a useful propagation range and enough channel availability to support fast connections.

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