Analyst: AT&T may opt out of incentive auction due to Time Warner deal

AT&T may no longer be looking to spend much in the incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum now that it has agreed to fork over $85 billion to acquire Time Warner. And that would likely mean that the auction won’t raise nearly as much money as had been expected.

The nation’s second-largest mobile network operator announced over the weekend that it has agreed to buy Time Warner in a blockbuster deal to expand its digital media empire. The move comes as AT&T prepares to launch DirecTV Now, a mobile-focused, OTT offering in an effort to leverage the 2015 $49 billion acquisition of the satellite TV provider.

Interestingly, the announcement came just a few days after Stage 2 of the incentive auction of TV broadcasters’ airwaves ended abruptly after a single round, surprising analysts and other onlookers who expected the second stage to last two weeks or more. Stage 2 generated only $21.5 billion in bids, falling far short of the $54.6 billion that would have ended the event.

The unexpectedly truncated round led some analysts to suggest that one bidder that had been looking to buy spectrum nationwide may have put its wallet back in its pocket, essentially walking away from the event. And Tim Farrar of TMF Associates took that scenario one step further, suggesting Comcast – which had been expected to spend roughly $5 billion or $6 billion at auction – might have opted out, choosing to focus primarily on the MVNO agreement it activated with Verizon last year rather than investing heavily to acquire its own spectrum licenses.

RELATED: Analysts expect incentive auction to generate between $32.8 billion and $43.8 billion

News of the proposed Time Warner acquisition, though, has led at least one firm to suggest that AT&T may have dropped out of the bidding.

“It was very interesting to us to see the broadcast auction end stage two after only one round. We had a chance to catch up with our spectrum experts and their view is one of the ‘big guys’ was out,” Jennifer Fritzsche of Wells Fargo Securities wrote. “The million-dollar question is which ‘big guy’ – Verizon, T-Mobile or Comcast. If this is true, and it is AT&T, then the check-writing event many expected for the auction won’t happen (and most thought would be in the realm of $10 billion). While we don’t know this at all to be the case, it is something that should be considered in light of this Time Warner/AT&T speculation.”

The 600 MHz airwaves up for grabs are sometimes referred as “beachfront” property because of their propagation characteristics, which had led some onlookers to predict that proceeds from the event would surpass the record $44.9 billion generated by the spectrum of AWS-3 spectrum that ended in January 2015. Indeed, Tom Wheeler said earlier this year he expected to see a “spectrum extravaganza” as companies vied for airwaves to meet ever-increasing demand for mobile data.

RELATED: Stage 2 of incentive auction ends after a single round generates only $21.5 billion in bids

But AT&T CFO John Stephens said several weeks ago that the carrier is working hard to satisfy all the requirements of its bid to win FirstNet’s business, which he described as “a unique opportunity.” Indeed, the winner of the FirstNet contract will get a 25-year deal to use 20 megahertz of 700 MHz spectrum as well as $6.5 billion to design and operate the nationwide network for federal, state and local authorities.

And that could be one reason AT&T might feel it could walk away from the incentive auction.

“Some may ask – why would AT&T ever walk away from a spectrum auction?”, Fritzsche wrote. “We would answer two ways: 1) remember they already have a lot of low-band spectrum including 29 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum; and 2) it may very well see another opportunity to get spectrum and get a $7 billion check to boot (FirstNet anyone?).”