Verizon, Dish & cable top list of CBRS auction winners

As widely expected, Verizon showed up at the auction of 3.5 GHz Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in a big way, committing more than $1.89 billion in bids, but rival AT&T was a no-show.

Dish Network, bidding under the name Wetterhorn Wireless, showed up as the second largest total winning bidder, having set down over $912.9 million. And cable companies Charter Communications, Comcast and Cox Communications rounded out the top five, bidding more than $464 million, $458 million and $212 million, respectively.

On the FCC’s list of the top five bidders winning the largest number of licenses, Dish came out on top, with 5,492 PALs won during the auction, which started July 23 and concluded August 25 after 76 rounds. SAL Spectrum LLC won 1,569 PALs, while AMG Technology Investment Group, which owns Nextlink, won 1,072 licenses. Windstream Services won 1,014 PALs and XF Wireless Investment/Comcast won 830 PALs.

The FCC’s results show Verizon won 557 PALs in 157 counties. Its participation isn’t surprising given its need for mid-band spectrum. The operator can use the PALs as well as General Authorized Access (GAA) unlicensed spectrum in the CBRS band. While the 3.5 GHz band comes with power restrictions, it’s the nearest chance for an operator to get mid-band spectrum for 5G. The C-band auction, set for December, will offer more, less encumbered mid-band spectrum, but that also requires repacking existing satellite incumbents in the band before it’s available for 5G.

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T-Mobile won eight PALs in six counties, committing to pay $5,583,000. T-Mobile is deploying a boatload of 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum that it just acquired through the merger with Sprint, so it’s not nearly as desperate for mid-band spectrum as Verizon.

Cable showing up big-time

Cable is probably the biggest take-away from the CBRS auction. “This shows their commitment to being in mobile longer term,” said Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. “They also want to wean themselves off the MVNO relationship with Verizon, where they pay unfavorable rates for data. Could be quite powerful in conjunction with Wi-Fi 6 and the significant added Wi-Fi capacity that the FCC recently authorized for Wi-Fi in the 6 GHz band.”

Verizon spent nearly half the total of the $4.5 billion that the auction generated in gross proceeds, a precursor to its even bigger spending when it comes to the C-band auction in December, he said. AT&T’s absence was the biggest surprise, given it’s a big player in the enterprise, but it might be saving its gun powder for the C-band. And T-Mobile’s meager take in the CBRS auction isn’t a big surprise, given its holdings at 2.5 GHz; Lowenstein said it’s probably saving up for the C-band auction as well.

Non-traditional bidders

The auction provided a chance for smaller entities to bid, including members of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents hundreds of smaller WISPs across the country. Midcontinent Communications, for example, won 269 licenses for $8,842,319. The CBRS PALs are based on counties rather than Partial Economic Areas (PEAs), which are larger, providing an opportunity for more participants.

“We congratulate the WISPA members who won licenses, many of whom participated in spectrum auctions for the first time,” said Louis Peraertz, VP of Policy for WISPA, in a statement. “Bidding activity was fierce, especially so in localities outside of major metro areas.  This proves smaller bidding licensing actually bring more money to the U.S. Treasury, as well as more diverse bidders to the plate, ultimately helping American broadband consumers get the services they demand and need.”

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A lot of other non-traditional players were involved as well – instead of the usual suspects who turn up for U.S. spectrum auctions. Chevron won 26 licenses, committing to pay over $1 million. Deere & Company won five licenses for $545,999, while Texas A&M University won one license for $39,000. Shenandoah Cable Television won 262 licenses for about $16 million.

Dubbed Auction 105, the PAL auction included 70 megahertz in the 3550-3650 MHz band and offered the greatest number of spectrum licenses ever in a single FCC auction. The FCC said down payments are due September 17, with final payments due on October 1.