FCC’s 28 GHz spectrum auction raises $36M in first round of bidding

The first round of the nation’s first-ever millimeter wave spectrum auction is over, and the results are in: Bidders placed more than 2,000 total provisionally winning bids, while around 1,000 licenses did not receive bids.

The total amount that all bidders pledged to spend on spectrum licenses, at least at the conclusion of the first round, is $36,428,510.

Licenses in Honolulu generated the highest bids at $810,000 each. Other locations that generated large bids in the auction included Kern, California ($714,000); Hildalgo, Texas ($659,000); Brevard, Florida ($462,000); Lancaster, Philadelphia ($442,000); and Volusia, Florida ($420,000).

The FCC is not releasing the identities of the bidders, and will only do that when the auction is over.

Bidders are scheduled to hold another round of bidding in the auction this afternoon. The auction will continue until there are no more bids.

The auction—for spectrum in the 28 GHz band, in an auction called Auction 101—is offering licenses in two 425-megahertz blocks (27.500- 27.925 GHz and 27.925-28.350 GHz). For each county in which 28 GHz licenses will be available for auction, both blocks of the 28 GHz band will be available.

The spectrum up for grabs in the auction is in the so-called millimeter wave bands, or spectrum bands above around 20 GHz. Such spectrum hasn’t been used for cellular transmissions until recently, thanks to new technologies that can make use of such spectrum. Many wireless operators including Verizon and AT&T are planning to use millimeter wave spectrum for their 5G services—the spectrum can transmit enormous amounts of data when compared with standard, midband spectrum, albeit at far shorter geographic distances.

RELATED: 28, 24 GHz auction primer: What to expect

The FCC released the names of would-be auction participants in October, of which there are around 40, including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Frontier Communications and Windstream. A range of smaller players are also on the list, including Starry, Pine Belt Cellular and Inland Cellular.

Comcast and Charter did not file applications to bid. However, Cox did file an application for the 24 GHz auction, which will be held immediately after the 28 GHz ends.

The big question is how much these two auctions, 28 GHz and 24 GHz, will bring in for the U.S. Treasury. Just based on the FCC’s opening bid requirements—with New York garnering the highest minimum opening bid of over $5 million in the 24 GHz auction—it’s clear the government expects another windfall.

However, Auction 101 isn’t expected to generate much money in total bids. That’s because much of the 28 GHz band is encumbered with existing spectrum owners: Only around 47% of the U.S. counties are available; 1,695 counties have incumbents and two are partially encumbered, leaving 1,537 counties available for the auction, according to Stephen Wilkus, CTO at Spectrum Financial Partners. Those counties up for auction represent about 23.7% of the U.S. population.

Still, the 28 GHz auction offers bidders the chance to get licenses for markets as diverse as Honolulu and Anchorage, Alaska, and places like Faribault County in Minnesota, Polk County in Georgia and Whitley County in Kansas.

According to the CTIA, the FCC has set minimum opening bids for the 28 GHz band at an average of $0.00044 per MHz-PoP, which is less than two-tenths of 1% of the average minimum opening bid in the 600 MHz band auction ($0.23 per MHz-PoP) that kicked off just two years ago.

“Primarily, the difference is attributable to basic physics and the propagation characteristics between high-band spectrum and low-band spectrum.Airwaves in the high-band spectrum travel much shorter distances than low-band spectrum. We measure low-band signals in miles—and high-band in meters,” wrote CTIA’s Scott Bergmann in a post to the association’s website.

The FCC's 600 MHz auction generated a total of almost $20 billion in bids, or less than half of what the FCC's AWS-3 auction raised two years prior.

“High-band spectrum clearly provides the anticipated leap in data speed, capacity, quality and low latency promised by 5G,” added Ericsson in a post on its website. “New spectrum bands are typically in the range 24 GHz to 50 GHz, with contiguous bandwidths of more than 100 megahertz per network. The high-band provides a significant opportunity for very high throughput services for eMBB, localized deployments and low latency use cases, e.g. industrial IoT, venues, etc, both for indoor and outdoor deployments. Fixed wireless access (FWA) will also benefit from these higher bands in terms of capacity. For wider-area coverage, combinations with low-band and mid-band are essential.”

The 28 GHz and 24 GHz auctions, Auctions 101 and 102 respectively, are just two of several efforts by the FCC to release more spectrum for commercial use. The 3.5 GHz band is being teed up for a unique spectrum sharing regime, and the licensed portion of that band could go up for auction in 2019 or 2020. The 37, 29 and 42 GHz bands are set to be auctioned the second half of 2019, and the FCC is still considering what to do with other bands, like the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, or C-Band. The wireless industry has displayed in recent months a strong desire for midband spectrum, and that could affect the decisions bidders make about the millimeter wave auctions.

“Today’s spectrum auction shows that America is continuing to lead the world in 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a release. “These airwaves will be critical in deploying 5G services and applications. And we’re not stopping there. Between the auctions this year and next, the FCC will push almost 5 gigahertz of spectrum into the commercial marketplace over the course of the next 15 months. To put that in perspective, that is more spectrum than is currently used for terrestrial mobile broadband by all wireless service providers combined.