CBRS auction starts off strong, with high demand in first round

The FCC wrapped up the first round of the 3.5 GHz spectrum auction on Thursday, with 271 qualified bidders and strong demand.

Gross proceeds as of round 1 in Auction 105 totaled $357,344,200. Many more rounds of bidding are expected in the weeks ahead.

The sheer number of bidders had indicated there could be strong activity in the auction for mid-band spectrum in the shared Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.55-3.65 GHz band.

Participants are vying for Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in county-based areas. In total there are 22,631 PALs, with seven available in each county license area. Each PAL consists of an unpaired 10 MHz block, and licensees can aggregate up to four PAL channels within any county area at any given time.

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AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Dish are all participating. However, unlike earlier 5G auctions for millimeter wave spectrum, there are numerous smaller entities and untraditional players getting in on the action. That includes cable companies Cox and Charter, but also the likes of Chevron, Deere & Company, and Duke University and Health System, among others.  

Sasha Javid, COO at BitPath, closely tracks and analyzes auction results, and in a post called out the significant demand Auction 105 is seeing after round one. While strong, he noted demand is comparable to prior auctions.  

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“The robust demand after the first round…is a very promising sign,” said Javid, who was chief data officer and legal advisor for the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force in 2016. “I have to assume the FCC is happy with how the auction started.”

Much of the early demand is in large markets including Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York. Javid told Fierce via email that’s not surprising, because as seen in earlier auctions, it’s where large bidders “can safely park the bids in the early rounds.”  Once the price for those areas increase as the auction continues, bidders will move into the markets that they really want, he explained. 

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Still, Auction 105 offers licenses in many less populous markets – and the market with the highest excess demand was Calhoun, Iowa. However, it does not necessarily mean bidders have strong interest in the area.

“Calhoun, IA and other cheap markets in the middle of the country are likely being used by some small bidders (of which there are many) to ensure that they meet the activity rule requirements,” Javid said. “But I hope that in at least some of these smaller markets there is genuine interest to use the CBRS band to provide wireless broadband.”

The nationwide price per MHz-POP at the end of round one was $0.020031.

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The set-up of the CBRS band is unique, with tiered coordinated sharing among three levels of users, including protected incumbent federal operations. PALs come after federal users, followed by General Authorized Access (GAA). The GAA tier is more similar to unlicensed access and deployments are already happening.

Carriers have been waiting for a new opportunity for licensed mid-band spectrum for 5G, but CBRS is also being used applications like fixed wireless and private LTE, among others.