Blog: Google adds to a dampening forecast for next US spectrum auction

17 FEB 2016

Google has decided to look on, but not touch, when vast amounts of 600MHz spectrum hits the shelves at the next Federal Communications Commission (FCC) run incentive auction, scheduled to kick off on 29 March.

The internet giant will “follow the upcoming spectrum auction closely”, but confirmed it will not participate, announcing the decision two days after prospective bidders filed their applications to the US regulator.

While not officially confirmed, heavy hitters like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile US and Comcast are almost certainly going to be involved, and a number of investment firms are also reportedly looking to cash in on the opportunity.

Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman, for a long time now has been particularly bullish about the potential of 600MHz, boldly predicting last month that the upcoming auction will be the largest sale of frequencies to date globally.

Not only will 600MHz provide a much needed boost to connectivity, the spectrum has been earmarked by Wheeler to help with the country’s heightening ambitions around 5G, with Verizon, and now AT&T, planning field trials to test the technology this year.

And if it’s anything to go by, the regulator could allow itself to be optimistic after last year’s AWS-3 spectrum raised a mammoth $44.9 billion.

This time round however, the situation is a lot more complex. This so called ‘reverse auction’ will see the country’s broadcasters sell off unwanted spectrum for the first time, and has been in the making for four years, if you were to believe Wheeler.

It also comes around when “carriers are relatively cash strapped”, Craig Moffett, senior research analyst at MoffettNathanson, told Mobile World Live.

“Logistically, this is also an incredibly complex undertaking and there are a tremendous amount of moving parts,” he said. “The FCC deserves kudos for doing a remarkable job with the parts of the auction they can control. The wildcards are in the parts they can’t,” he added.

In the grand scheme of things, Google’s omission could be of little impact, but,keep in mind, we are talking about a company with a lot of cash on the hip.

Arguably, as Moffett suggests, operators likely to be involved are not in exactly the same position.

Berge Ayvazian, senior analyst at Wireless 20/20, agrees, telling Mobile World Live “operators are now considering what they can spend on new spectrum, in light of available capital and debt they took on in the last auction”.

“AT&T is highly leveraged after investments in DirecTV and Mexico, while Verizon and T-Mobile US have been selling off towers and other assets to help finance licence payments. This will undoubtedly affect their abilities to invest in the auction,” he added.

Dampening expectations
Operator woes aside, perhaps more worryingly for the FCC is the fact that Google is not the only high profile company to say it won’t be involved. Troubled Sprint said last year it would sit out, while cableco Charter Communication, in the midst of buying Time Warner Cable, also doesn’t seem to have the cash for new spectrum.

Inevitably, forecasts for the auction are now taking a hit.

Wireless 20/20 predicts it will fall well short of the AWS-3 figure, at a $25 billion to $30 billion spend, “now that Google, Sprint and Charter have announced they will not participate”.

The analyst firm forecasts AT&T to be the highest bidder, spending up to $10 billion, with T-Mobile US in second, spending up to $8 billion.

Ayvazian said there has been too much hype around 600MHz to begin with, mainly driven by the “FCC’s need to keep up momentum and reassure broadcasters there will be sufficient interest from carriers in buying the spectrum”.

Financial services firm JP Morgan also made a similar prediction last week, predicting up to a $35 billion spend.

Moffett agrees that “expectations have become somewhat inflated”, but still argues that the result of the auction really depends on the US’ two leading players.

“Ultimately, what matters most is what Verizon and AT&T choose to spend. If Verizon’s cautious statements can be taken at face value, and I think they can, then we are likely to see a somewhat disappointing result.”

Indeed, there have too been questions and concerns regarding FCC’s future plans for spectrum, from 29 March up to 2020, given the “insatiable” demand for spectrum that exists, as Ayvazian puts it, in the US for mobile data services.

Controversially, industry group CTIA claimed last year there is no plan for spectrum after this very upcoming auction, a suggestion which Wheeler swiftly denied, and Moffett believes these questions could equally be directed to the government.

“The questions about what spectrum we can expect to see next are in the hands of congress at least as much as they are in the hands of the FCC.”

He also did not rule out another ‘dark horse’, as Google was expected to be, entering the fray late and pushing up the auction price.

“It’s the nature of a dark horse that you don’t see them coming,” he said. “Even after filing the deadline, we don’t know who will turn out to be the big winner and who won’t, so there is always a chance that in six months we’ll all be taking about a big surprise winner.”

Wireless 20/20 forecast: 

Bidder Likely Bid Result
AT&T $8-10 billion 2×10 MHz block nationwide
Verizon $5 billion 2×5 MHz block nationwide
T-Mobile USA $6-8 billion 2×10 MHz block nationwide
Other Bidders $5-7 billion 2×10 MHz of 600 MHz spectrum in many markets
Total Bids $25-30 billion

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.


Kavit Majithia

Kavit joined Mobile World Live in May 2015 as Content Editor. He started his journalism career at the Press Association before joining Euromoney’s graduate scheme in April 2010. Read More >>

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