The Upcoming AWS Spectrum Auction

Transmitter_tower_in_SpainThe FCC’s auction for new cellular data spectrum will begin on November 13. This is the first big spectrum auction in six years, so it’s worth watching. The spectrum being auctioned is being referred to as AWS or Advanced Wireless Spectrum. There are three separate bands being auctioned that go from 1,695MHz to 1,710MHz, from 1,755MHz to 1,780MHz and from 2,155MHz to 2,180MHz.

The FCC has set aside a reserve big for the auction at $10.5 billion. That means that if they don’t receive bids totaling at least that much in the first round that the FCC has the right to cancel the auction. Assuming that price is met, then the normal FCC bidding process will take place and one would expect the auction to go for a few more rounds.

The AWS spectrum is expected to be used almost entirely for data, and both Verizon and AT&T already own some spectrum that sits next to these new blocks. That is going to make it fairly easy for carriers to incorporate the spectrum into handsets. Further, this same spectrum is used in Europe for wireless data, meaning that there are already a wide array of handsets capable of using the spectrum.

Because it’s high frequency, this spectrum is capable of handling a lot of data. However, like other high frequencies it’s not great at penetrating building walls and other obstacles. Contrast this to the next auction that’s on the horizon. In two years the FCC will be auctioning chunks of the 600 MHz spectrum that is being vacated by television stations. This frequency can penetrate into elevators but doesn’t carry as much data per channel as the higher frequencies.

As you would expect the bulk of the spectrum is going to be auctioned to the largest carriers. It is expected that T-Mobile is going to be aggressive in the auction with AT&T and Verizon also buying a lot of spectrum. Sprint is expected to sit out the auction since they already own a lot of high frequency bandwidth. The wildcard player is going to be Dish Networks which may go after a lot of this spectrum. Dish has announced plans to offer a fixed data product using wireless spectrum that will also be used to deliver a cable TV line-up. This spectrum would give them more bandwidth for that offering.

The AWS spectrum is not immediately available since the Department of Defense and a few other government agencies still occupy some of the spectrum. It is expected that the bulk of the government usage will be gone in about two years, but these kinds of transitions almost invariably take longer than expected. This means that it’s unlikely that the bandwidth will have much of an impact on wireless data speeds until the two to three year time frame.

The spectrum is being auctioned off by market and as you would expect this means a wide variance in the interest by the carriers in any given market. In similar auctions in the past some markets went unclaimed, meaning that nobody was willing to pay the FCC’s minimum bid for the market, and if that happens again you can expect a second auction of the leftover, and certainly rural markets. This auction does have some incentives for small bidders and while the big carriers will grab the vast majority of the spectrum you can expect to see smaller companies going after secondary and rural markets.

The auction is expected to be tactical is that each carrier has holes they are trying to fill in certain markets. And the big carriers are keeping the upcoming 600 MHz auction in mind and may hold off on bidding now in markets where they would rather have that spectrum. This makes the auction a big chess game by market. The funny thing is that the carriers know exactly what each other already owns in terms of spectrum, so they know basically what each other is most interested in. But because there are two auctions close together or very different spectrum, nobody is going to know each other’s strategies until the first round bidding is done. The auction is often finished after the first round for a lot of markets and the following rounds are usually only for the prime markets.

I just looked at the amount of spectrum that cellphone users consume late last week. The current statistics show that the average landline connection is using almost 100 times more aggregate data in a month (download and upload combined) than the average cell phone. With that said, Cisco has predicted that the amount of wireless data usage will triple over the next five years, and many analysts think this is conservative.

It’s obvious that cellphone data is never going to rival landline data usage or even come close. I chuckle whenever I see somebody say that wireless data will win the bandwidth battle. There just is not enough wireless spectrum for that to ever happen. While cellular data usage is now doubling every five years, landline data is doubling every three years and one has to carry that trend out twenty years to see that the average landline home connection might be using nearly a terabit of data each month.

But we like using data on our cellphones. The wireless carriers have trained us to be very cautious in that usage because of the severe data caps and the horrendously high price for exceeding your data cap. But even with those restrictions, the wireless carriers need more spectrum and are expected to make this an interesting auction.

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