FCC wraps up third millimeter wave 5G spectrum auction

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday wrapped up its third auction for millimeter wave 5G spectrum after concluding the assignment phase, where bidding didn’t add much to overall auction proceeds.

Auction 103 ended with $7.57 billion in gross bids or about $0.009 per MHz PoP for licenses in the 37, 39, and 47 GHz band, according to a brief by Wall Street firm Raymond James.

Following the initial clock phase, 70 rounds in the assignment phase only added about $8 million in incremental proceeds or about 0.1% of first phase bidding. Raymond James noted that’s even more modest than the $35 million (or 2%) added in Auction 102’s assignment phase, which had offered licenses in the 24 GHz band.

The FCC plans to disclose the identities of the winning bidders and round-by-round results in the next few days with a public notice.

In total, the FCC made 3,400 megahertz of 5G spectrum available at the latest auction. Participants scooped up all but two of the available 14,144 licenses across 416 Partial Economic Areas (PEAs).

The clock phase concluded in late January after 104 rounds of bidding, with 10 blocks of 100 megahertz for each the 37 GHz and 47 GHz bands available and 14 blocks of 100 megahertz each for 39 GHz band.

Bidding at Auction 103 more fierce for 37 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum (MN blocks) than 47 GHz (P blocks). Earlier analysis by Sasha Javid, COO of the Spectrum Consortium, noted that prices for P blocks were roughly 89% cheaper than MN at the end of the clock phase.

The nationwide price per MHz-POP for category P blocks in Auction 103 ended at $0.001099, while category MN blocks (37.6-38.6 GHz and 38.6-40 GHz) ended the clock phase at $0.009613, according to Javid, former chief data officer and legal advisor for the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force.

Less competitive bidding for 47 GHz was not entirely unexpected. Brian Goemmer, president of AllNet Insights & Analytics told FierceWireless in January it likely related to limitations of the higher-band spectrum and amount already made available.

Lower bids he said could be due to, “the challenges in deploying mmWave spectrum outside of urban centers and [that] limited appetite in rural areas has already been met with the 24, 28, and 37-39 GHz bands."

The FCC has already auctioned off millimeter wave spectrum in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz bands at Auctions 101 and 102, respectively. Some were concerned bidding would be tempered at the third high-band spectrum auction, as operators wait for coveted mid-band spectrum to become available.

Who will be top bidder?

What will be interesting now is who won what, with 35 qualified bidders participating.

Following the clock phase earlier this year, Raymond James analysts predicted T-Mobile would emerge as the highest bidder in Auction 103, spending more than $2 billion, based on mmWave spectrum holdings in the top 100 markets and balance sheet capabilities.

T-Mobile has been rolling out low-band 600 MHz for 5G and is poised to get key 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum through its merger with Sprint. T-Mobile has said millimeter wave is still part of the its 5G plan, although deployments have been very limited so far. Raymond James in January estimated T-Mobile would spend more than $2 bilblion at Auction 103.

AT&T, Dish, and Sprint, would follow, each spending between $1 billion and $2 billion, according to the firm. U.S. Cellular, meanwhile, would participate in active markets and spend an estimated less than $1 billion.

The analysts didn’t expect Verizon, which already has deep mmWave spectrum holdings, to make a big showing at the latest auction.

“Given its significant starting position of MMW spectrum, we think Verizon will end up being one of the smallest players in Auction 103,” wrote Raymond James analysts.

The firm noted that the top 10 markets based on price per MHz POP were not those with the largest population and said PEAs attracting top dollar included Appleton, Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee in Wisconsin.

“We believe this was driven by USM making sure it has ample spectrum in its markets, similar to what happened in the Broadcast Incentive 600 MHz Auction back in 2017 where USM was a high bidder in 7 of the Top 10 priced PEAs,” wrote the team.

U.S. Cellular, the nation’s fifth-largest carrier, plans to use 600 MHz spectrum for initial 5G rollouts, and had said it would introduce 5G using mmWave spectrum later this year, though executives recently indicated that could still change.

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