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Verizon says it has enough wireless spectrum, but is it just a stalling tactic?

The comments suggest Verizon won't need to participate in the next spectrum auction, but the carrier could just be buying time and pushing for more favorable terms.

Verizon has had its fill of spectrum, the radio frequencies that power all wireless service.

At least, that's according to Verizon Communications Chief Technology Officer Tony Melone, who told investors on Tuesday that the company has enough spectrum to handle consumer demand for mobile broadband capacity for the next few years. That's largely due to the $10.4 billion it spent on the government auction that ended last month.

"With the addition of the licenses won at this auction we have spectrum holdings that allow us to cost effectively meet the anticipated growth needs of the business in the near term," Melone told investors on the call.

The comments call into question whether the nation's largest wireless operator will even participate in another government-sponsored spectrum auction that's on the calendar for early 2016. And that might be the point.

By making noise about its spectrum position, Verizon could be angling to push back the auction, position itself to ask for more favorable terms during the bidding process, wait for a better political climate and give it some breathing room to financially recuperate from the last spectrum spree. Most importantly, a delay would be a blow to smaller carriers T-Mobile and Sprint, which were counting on the spectrum from the next auction to bolster their wireless service.

The belief: that the Federal Communications Commission wouldn't start an auction without one of the wireless industry's heavy hitters.

"You can't take AT&T and Verizon out of the auction," said Armand Musey, a managing director at Goldin Associates. "They make up more than 70 percent of the market. And they have much deeper pockets than anyone else that would participate in this auction."

This is important to wireless consumers, because ultimately, what happens in this auction will affect competition in the wireless market for years to come. Wireless spectrum is considered the life-blood of the wireless industry, and operators need more and more of it to keep up with demand for more bandwidth from consumers. Without enough spectrum in the right markets, competitors wither and die.

AT&T and Verizon, the two largest operators in the US, already control the vast majority of spectrum licenses throughout the country. The upcoming incentive spectrum auction is likely the last major auction the FCC will have for several years, which means it's one of the few opportunities for competitors to get their hands on this valuable resource so that they can compete against two largest mobile operators.

The AWS-3 spectrum auction, which ended last month, generated a record-breaking $45 billion in revenue for the federal government, more than any other wireless auction in the FCC's history. It easily surpassed the agency's goal of generating at least $10.6 billion for the sale of 1,600 licenses.

While government officials are no doubt happy with the outcome, the high price tag also raises significant questions about whether the agency should delay the next wireless spectrum auction, scheduled for early next year.

Spectrum shift from TV to wireless

This next set of spectrum is expected to be even more valuable than the licenses that were just sold because they run on a low band that can propagate signals over long distances and penetrate obstacles like walls.

The so-called incentive auction scheduled for early 2016 will take unused or underused spectrum in the 600MHz band of frequency used by TV broadcasters and sell it to mobile broadband operators. The auction will allow TV broadcasters to take a portion of the proceeds from the auction in exchange for giving up some of their unused spectrum.

Similar TV broadcast spectrum in the 700MHz band sold in a 2008 auction was called "beachfront" property at the time. And before the AWS-3 auction that closed last week, the 700MHz auction held the record for the highest revenue-generating auction with $19.6 billion in proceeds. The next auction is also expected to the be the last major spectrum auction that the FCC will hold for several years.

The spike in prices during the just-completed auction has many wondering how high the next auction will go.

"There's definitely concern in the industry that operators have spent a lot a money in the AWS auction -- probably double what everyone had expected," Musey said.

Musey said there's already been speculation about whether the industry could afford to participate at the same level in an auction for spectrum that's considered even more valuable than the airwaves that were just auctioned off. He said that threats from larger operators like Verizon to sit out the auction could force the FCC to delay the auction.

Considering that bids from AT&T, Dish Network, and Verizon made up $42 billion of the $45 billion spent on the auction, eliminating one or more of these players from the bidding could mean a far less lucrative auction.

From a financial perspective, it makes sense that Verizon would want to delay the auction. It just spent $10.4 billion on this auction. And it already has debt of about $130 billion. This coupled with the fact that it already has a large treasure trove of similar low-band spectrum makes it easy to understand why the company would be less than enthusiastic to spend another pile of money on wireless spectrum next year.

Verizon declined to comment on speculation is may want to delay the upcoming auction.

Political calculus

But there are also political reasons for Verizon signaling it wants to push back the auction. Smaller competitive wireless operators have lobbied the FCC to adopt rules for the upcoming wireless auction that would limit participation in the upcoming auction from AT&T and Verizon, which already control more than 70 percent of the US wireless market and also already hold the lion's share of low-band wireless spectrum licenses in the US.

So far, it looks like the FCC, led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, has been more sympathetic to smaller carriers than to AT&T and Verizon. Next year is a presidential election year, which means that a Republican president and FCC could drastically change the tone at the agency. An incentive auction run under the Republicans might offer more favorable terms to larger operators like Verizon.

This political calculus may be one reason why T-Mobile has been lobbying for the auction to be held as soon as possible. T-Mobile only spent about $2 billion on AWS-3 spectrum. The company, which already owns similar spectrum, has been holding out for the low-band broadcast spectrum to fill out its portfolio. In January as the AWS-3 auction was coming to a close, T-Mobile's CEO John Legere met separately with FCC commissioners and Wheeler to urge the agency to keep the auction on schedule for the first quarter of 2016. During that meeting he told officials that delaying it "would only benefit AT&T and Verizon, which hold approximately 73 percent of the low-band spectrum today," according to a filing at the FCC.

Smaller regional operators also say that delaying the auction would be a mistake. Eric Graham, senior vice president at C Spire, a regional operator based in Mississippi, said that rural operators in particular have been looking forward to the incentive auction in order to acquire low-band spectrum that can be used to upgrade their networks to 4G LTE.

"Delaying the auction would be bad for all competitive carriers," Graham said.

But he acknowledged that the long-term consequences would be even more disastrous for smaller operators if AT&T and Verizon didn't participate in the upcoming auction at all.

"The more participants in the auction, the more valuable the spectrum becomes for the consumer," he said. "If every wireless operator is using the same bands of spectrum, it means that there will be more device interoperability. And that's key to consumer choice."