FCC rakes in $45 billion from wireless spectrum auction

The record-breaking auction highlights the demand for high-speed wireless service and signals strong promise for the upcoming auction of TV broadcast spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission raised a record-breaking $44.9 billion in a wireless spectrum auction that officially ended Thursday.

The spectrum in this most recent auction is considered mid-band spectrum and sits between 1700MHz and 2100MHz frequencies. James Martin/CNET

The high dollar figure in the auction for the so-called AWS-3 swath of airwaves is significant because it shows just how valuable wireless spectrum has become as more Americans use Internet-enabled wireless devices to do more things that require faster networks, such as watching streaming videos.

It also means more cash in the government's pocket, a consequence that should please lawmakers, who authorized the wireless auction and an upcoming auction of TV broadcast spectrum as part of the payroll tax and unemployment benefits bill in 2012.

"The results of this auction confirm the strong market demand for more spectrum," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "We are confident there will continue to be strong demand for valuable low-band spectrum that will be made available in the Incentive Auction early next year."

The last major wireless auction the FCC held was back in 2008 when the agency raised $19.1 billion selling a set of spectrum used by TV broadcasters. Spectrum bought in that auction by companies such as AT&T and Verizon has become the basis for new 4G LTE networks.

The 700MHz spectrum sold in the 2008 auction was considered beachfront property because its low frequency allows for wireless signals to travel longer distances and penetrate obstacles like walls, providing excellent network coverage inside and outside.

The newly concluded auction covered what's considered midband spectrum, sitting between the 1700MHz and 2100MHz frequencies. This type of spectrum is not considered as valuable as low-band spectrum, such as the TV broadcast spectrum, because signals travel shorter distances than over lower frequency spectrum. For this reason, the record-breaking revenue raised for this auction has surprised many experts, and it bodes well for the incentive spectrum auction of TV spectrum in the 600MHz band set for 2016.

Funding for FirstNet

The FCC, which started the auction on November 13, had set a goal of raising at least $10.6 billion for the sale of 1,600 licenses. But it became clear early in the bidding process that this goal would be surpassed.

This auction and the upcoming auction of TV broadcast spectrum were authorized to help raise money for the federal government, including the funding of FirstNet, a nationwide public safety network that uses spectrum from the 700MHz spectrum auction. This auction easily met the $7 billion obligation to pay for FirstNet.

"This AWS-3 auction was a major win for consumers, innovation and public safety," Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said in a statement. "The auction generated $44.8 billion -- enough to fully fund FirstNet, the nationwide interoperability network for America's first responders and public safety officials."

Specific results of the winning bidders in the auction have not been released yet, but they could be made public as soon as Monday. Bidding in the auction was anonymous; however, it's believed that the two largest wireless operators, AT&T and Verizon, walked away with the lion's share of the licenses. In fact, these two companies could be spending between $15 billion and $20 billion each for the licenses, according to equities analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson in a research note published last week.

Moffett also speculated that AT&T likely bid slightly more than Verizon. AT&T and Verizon have been raising debt and selling assets to pay for the new licenses they have bid on at auction. AT&T is also in the midst of acquiring satellite TV provider DirecTV, as well as two smaller wireless carriers in Mexico.

Verizon, which was the only wireless operator to win a nationwide license in the 700MHz auction in 2008, is expected to use the midband spectrum it has won in this auction to add more capacity to its network. This will allow the carrier to offer the faster speeds on its 4G LTE network to more customers in dense urban markets and allow those customers to do more bandwidth-intensive things without hiccups, like watching video on their smartphones and tablets.

It could take some time before wireless operators can put their new spectrum to use. The Department of Defense is using some of the frequencies that were sold for things like missile guidance systems and drone training programs. The agency has said some of these programs may take five to 10 years to relocate to other spectrum.

While several smaller carriers, private equity firms and even individuals also participated in the auction, many experts are curious to see how much spectrum satellite TV provider Dish Network won in the auction. Dish has been acquiring wireless spectrum in other deals and is potentially poised to build a wireless network of its own that could rival those of the major cellular operators.

"The key actor here is Dish Network," Moffett wrote in his research note. "Everyone wants to know whether Dish was bidding to win or just bidding to raise prices (or even not bidding at all)."

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