US state trousers $4.6 billion from 3.5 GHz auction

The auction of 3.5 GHz spectrum in the US has closed, raising a total of $4.59 billion and raising expectations that the country's next 5G sale could bring in almost 10 times as much.

Mary Lennighan

August 26, 2020

4 Min Read
US state trousers $4.6 billion from 3.5 GHz auction

The auction of 3.5 GHz spectrum in the US has closed, raising a total of $4.59 billion and raising expectations that the country’s next 5G sale could bring in almost 10 times as much.

Auction 105 drew to a close after 76 rounds of bidding over the course of just over a month, with 91.1% of the available frequency licences having been snapped up, the FCC revealed on Tuesday, although it has yet to share the identities of the winning bidders.

While the government is doubtless pleased with the final total – FCC chairman Ajit Pai described the sale as “a resounding success” – it wasn’t an altogether surprising outcome. Industry watchers had predicted wildly different amounts in the months leading up to the auction, with some putting the final figure well above that $4.6 billion level, while others went lower. The pace of bidding was frenetic throughout and demand was clearly high, so a multi-billion-dollar total had been looking fairly likely.

Analysts are already hard at work, examining the course of the auction, the sums raised in the various licence areas (see below) and what it all means for the wider industry. While that process will become infinitely more interesting once the FCC reveals the names of the winners, one analyst’s early assessment of the impact of the auction stands out.

“The results of this auction bodes well for the C-band auction currently slated for December,” noted Sasha Javid, technology and legal consultant and COO Of broadcast data network BitPath, in a lengthy round-up of the auction.

“Even if the 280 MHz of C-band spectrum being put up for auction goes for the the closing price of this auction ($0.217), we are talking about a $19 billion dollar auction,” Javid said. “But because the 280 MHz in the C-band does not have the same power limitations found in the CBRS band, prices could easily be double of this auction, resulting in a $38 billion dollar auction or more.”

Wow. Pause for thought for the telcos there.

That $0.217 refers to the price per MHz-POP across the whole auction, as calculated by Javid, who was surprised by that figure, given the restrictions on the 3.5 GHz band, namely the aforementioned power limitations and the fact that spectrum winners will have to share with government incumbents, like the US navy. The 3.5 GHz band is also known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band and comes with a specific framework to facilitate shared federal and non-federal use.

Of course, the price per MHz-POP varied hugely by region. The FCC Had 70 MHz of spectrum to offload, which it split into 22,631 so-called Priority Access Licenses (PALs), with bidding organised at a county level.

According to Javid, Orange County generated the highest price per MHz-POP at $0.912, followed by Cook County (Chicago) at $0.767 and San Diego at $0.685. The closely-watched locations of New York and Los Angeles came in at $0.627 and $0.530 respectively, while as the biggest county by some margin, Los Angeles generated the highest gross proceeds at close to $365 million.

“I look forward to this important spectrum being put to use quickly to provide service to the American people. And I look forward to the Commission making available 280 more megahertz of mid-band spectrum for 5G in the C-band auction beginning on December 8,” Pai said.

No surprise there, given the potential windfall that auction could bring. The FCC recently revealed it had secured a commitment from the US’s satellite operators to free up the C-band for 5G sooner than previously anticipated. Essentially, the satellite players will move their services into the top 200 MHz of the band, freeing up the lower 280 MHz for mobile with a 20 MHz guard band.

The FCC plans to auction 5,684 new flexible-use overlay licenses based on Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) for spectrum in the lower end of the C-band, at 3.7 GHz–3.98 GHz. “This spectrum holds the potential to be prime spectrum for 5G services,” the FCC said recently.

There will be little time for the 3.5 GHz spectrum winners, whoever they may be – Verizon has often been named as a likely candidate to have spent big, incidentally – to gather their thoughts before we’re at it again with the C-band sale.

“Time for carriers to plan their capex budgets accordingly!” said Javid. You’re not kidding. With an auction that could raise well into the tens of billions of dollars in the offing, that could be a bit of an understatement.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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