The prospect of a mmWave spectrum auction in the US is back on the table. After months of uncertainty, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai announced at this year’s Mobile World Congress plans to put 28GHz and 24GHz spectrum on the block this year as long as lawmakers correct a payments issue currently holding up the process.
But, unlike the FCC, operators haven’t been idle in the period between the FCC opening up the 28GHz, 37GHz and 39GHz bands for mobile use in July 2016 and Pai’s announcement.
Both AT&T and Verizon closed deals to acquire significant amounts of mmWave spectrum from FiberTower and Straight Path, respectively. Other operators appear not to be hung up on mmWave at all.
So just who will be the big bidders in the FCC’s expected 28GHz auction?
Though Sprint announced plans to significantly boost capex, it seems the operator could repeat its decision to sit out of the FCC’s 600MHz auction.
Speaking at an investor conference this week, Sprint CFO Michel Combes said the operator would eye strategic spectrum purchases in the mmWave bands, but is comfortable with its 2.5GHz holding and has all the spectrum it needs for the “foreseeable future”.
The operator nabbed an average of more than 375MHz of 39GHz spectrum in the top 100 US markets through its FiberTower deal, giving it a solid foundation for its early 5G deployments.
It is unclear whether the operator would similarly bid big on 28GHz. However, AT&T did put in the initial bid for Straight Path’s 28GHz holdings before being beat out by Verizon and performed its fair share of 28GHz testing. AT&T was also among those pressing the FCC to auction off available 28GHz and 37GHz to 40GHz spectrum by the end of this year.
Moor Insights & Strategy wireless analyst Anshel Sag speculated AT&T could make a go of it to make up for the 24GHz licences it lost out on due to FiberTower’s settlement with the FCC.
Flush with cash courtesy of tax reform, Verizon seems an obvious candidate to be a frontrunner in a 28GHz auction due to its heavy focus on the band. However, the operator just picked up 735 licences in the 39GHz band and 133 in the 28GHz band across the top 40 US markets through its $3.1 billion Straight Path acquisition.
While it will likely bid to patch bald spots, Verizon may not need to spend the same kind of money in an auction it might have before the deal.
This, of course, leaves T-Mobile and all signs point to the operator being the top contender. Like Verizon, T-Mobile received a fresh infusion of cash from tax reform and for months pushed the FCC to auction off mmWave spectrum in the 2018 timeframe.
CFO Braxton Carter this week told an investor conference the operator will “certainly” be a player in the forthcoming auctions and added “there’s going to be a few billion dollars in spectrum acquisitions that are on the horizon”.
Tier-1 operators aside, a number of other players could surface as wild cards.
These include cable MVNOs Charter Communications and Comcast. Though both seem to be focused primarily on the 3.5GHz band, Charter at least is conducting more than one trial at 28GHz. Smaller regional operators including C Spire and US Cellular, which have both conducted 28GHz trials, could also get in the game, as might the likes of Dish Network and Google.
Dish is planning for standalone 5G and already owns 28GHz assets in a number of markets, while Google might be interested for its fixed-wireless efforts (though that’s less likely).
Pai gave legislators a deadline of 13 May to fix the financial snaggle preventing an auction, and lawmakers have taken him up on the challenge. Earlier this week, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to clear the hurdle, which means the ball is in the Senate’s court.
Should all go according to plan, Pai said he would like to hold a 28GHz auction in November and immediately follow up with a 24GHz proceeding, meaning we have around eight months to wait to see who takes the bait.
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