• United States
Jon Gold
Senior Writer

Verizon and AT&T billions lead the spending for 5G licenses

News Analysis
Mar 13, 20203 mins

28 wireless providers paid more than $7.5 billion for 3.4 GHz of spectrum auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission.

4g versus 5g horizon sunrise
Credit: Dushesina/Getty Images

The largest FCC auction in history as measured by the amount of spectrum sold ended this week as 3.4GHz worth of the country’s airwaves were snapped up by 28 companies.

The majority of that spectrum designated for 5G was purchased by companies affiliated closely with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.

These results combined with similar auctions held in 2019, mean that more than 5GHz of spectrum has been sold off over the past two years, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “To put that in perspective, that is more spectrum than is currently used for terrestrial mobile broadband by all wireless service providers in the United States combined,” he said in a statement.

Major buyers of the licenses include:

  • Verizon, spending the most money to license the most bandwidh, paid just over$3.4 billion for 4,940 licenses.
  • AT&T spent a shade under $2.4 billion for 3,267 licenses.
  • T-Mobile spent $931 million to acquire 2,384 licenses
  • Sprint was relatively quiet, paying $113 million for 127 licenses.

It’s worth noting that Verizon, AT&T and Sprint made bids under the banner of subsidiaries Straight Path Spectrum, FiberTower Spectrum, and ATI Sub, respectively. Also bidding aggressively was apparent DISH Network proxy Window Wireless, which acquired 2,651 licenses for just over $202 million.

The millimeter-wave bands auctioned week sit far higher in the RF spectrum than those used by current-generation Wi-Fi and cellular data networks. Higher frequencies of this type are great for carrying large volumes of traffic at very high speeds, but their shorter waves mean that they don’t propagate very well over long distances, and don’t penetrate building walls or windows. Hence, to cover a given area, a service provider would have to deploy many more millimeter-wave access points than would be required for 4G LTE coverage.

Millimeter-wave frequencies, however, are key to 5G technology, allowing network operators to deliver the kind of gigabit-range speeds needed for 4K video streaming and other bandwidth-intensive applications. Other 5G technology operates at much lower frequencies to ensure widespread coverage, but areas of especially high demand, particularly in dense urban environments, could be serviced by millimeter-wave systems.

The FCC said that further auctions would be held later this year to help wireless carriers build out 5G technology, and that these would offer frequencies in the 3.5GHz and 3.7GHz bands. These “mid-band” frequencies will be an important part of commercial 5G, offering a middle ground between fast but geographically limited millimeter-wave coverage and slower, sub-1GHz systems which can provide coverage over huge areas.