Carriers seeking greater spectrum holdings will get a boon from the government in about 18 months. Today the FCC gave notice that it will hold a spectrum auction next September. It should give carriers an opportunity to flesh out their 4G networks, or perhaps prepare for the next wave. After all, that’s what 2008′s spectrum auction mostly provided.
What was expected to be a heated bidding between the titans Verizon and AT&T turned into a run for Verizon. They picked up the majority of the C block, which afforded them enough reserve spectrum to build out their 4G LTE network. AT&T mostly picked from the lesser blocks, which in turn hurt regional providers.
There were some wins for smaller providers then, as Cricket and MetroPCS picked up enough spectrum to expand a bit. But overall the spoils went to the giants. It’s difficult to expect anything different this time around. They’re the ones with the money, and they know the value of spectrum. It’s unlikely they let this opportunity pass them by.
It’s easy to forget, but spectrum is a finite resource. If we opened all spectrum to all carriers, we would have mayhem. That’s why the FCC is charged with delegating it in a fair, and lucrative, manner. Carriers understand that they have limited opportunities to pick up new spectrum holdings. That’s why everyone expects the titans to pick up the lion’s share.
Yet that’s not quite what happened back in 2008. It appears that AT&T backed off, opting out of a bidding war with Verizon. Letting Verizon have its way with the C block certainly gave its biggest competitor an advantage. But AT&T played it conservatively, picking and choosing spectrum from the lesser blocks that helped complement its network.
One of the keys at that point, though, was AT&T’s acquisitions of a few regional carriers. They gained spectrum from those holdings, meaning they didn’t need the big block of spectrum in the same way Verizon did. So in a way they both won. AT&T fortified its own holdings, while Verizon made a big play. We could certainly see something similar play out in 2014 as well.
There are a few regional carriers still on the table. MetroPCS could be off the table, as we’ll soon see a vote of shareholders for the T-Mobile merger. But there is still Cricket, plus a number of regional carriers such as Cincinnati Bell and US Cellular. Rather than risk a bidding war with another billion dollar company, AT&T or Verizon could go down the acquisition path, picking up spectrum that way and avoiding large-scale bids.
At this point, though, everything is speculation. The auction itself is not even set in stone; the FCC merely informed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that it intends to hold it. But given the necessity of additional spectrum, it’s likely this will occur. It’ll be interesting, at least, to see how it all breaks down and how it benefits the carriers.