AT&T likely bid for less than $2.4B on spectrum in FCC’s 600 MHz incentive auction

In a recent filing with the government, AT&T said that its bids in the ongoing 600 MHz incentive auction should be well below the amount it made in deposits to the FCC prior to the start of the auction. One analyst calculated that AT&T likely made around $2.4 billion worth of deposits to the FCC to participate in the auction.

The news doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Bidding in the forward portion of the FCC’s ongoing incentive auction of TV broadcasters’ unwanted 600 MHz spectrum ended last month just shy of $20 billion in total bids, far below expectations. Moreover, industry observers predicted that AT&T wouldn’t be a big player in the auction following news that the carrier likely won the FirstNet contract to build a nationwide 700 MHz LTE network for public safety users, thereby removing the carrier’s need for additional low-band spectrum like the 600 MHz licenses up for grabs in the FCC’s incentive auction.

In a recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, AT&T said that “our commitment to purchase 600 MHz spectrum licenses for which we submitted bids is expected to be more than satisfied by the deposits made to the FCC in the third quarter of 2016.”

It’s somewhat unclear exactly how much AT&T made in deposits for the auction. In its SEC filing for the third quarter, the carrier said only that it had made the necessary deposits.

However, BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk wrote in October that the deposit deadline for the incentive auction was July 1 of last year, so deposits should have shown up in bidders’ second- or third-quarter reports. “AT&T and T-Mobile have reported cash uses of $2.4 billion and $2.2 billion, respectively, that we believe are auction deposits,” Piecyk wrote.

Thus, it’s reasonable to assume that AT&T bid less than $2.4 billion during the forward portion of the FCC’s auction.

Forward bidding in Stage 4 of the FCC’s incentive auction came to an end last month. Bidders will gain access to 70 MHz of spectrum and TV broadcasters will receive about $10 billion for their airwaves, while the government will receive roughly $7 billion. The remaining amount will cover administrative costs of the auction, and the extra 14 MHz of spectrum will be used for guard bands to address interference concerns.

Industry watchers generally expect T-Mobile to walk away with a significant amount of 600 MHz spectrum. Indeed, the carrier said before the start of the incentive auction that it might bid up to $10 billion for licenses.

AT&T’s performance in the 600 MHz incentive auction likely will be far different from its activities during the blockbuster AWS-3 auction, during which it spent fully $18 billion on licenses.