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In Buying Straight Path, Verizon Moves Needle Toward Millimeter Waves

The wrestling matches over millimeter wave spectrum are intensifying. Major wireless carriers have acknowledged that the high frequency bands are vital for 5G communications.

That became clearer on Thursday when Verizon announced a $3.1 billion deal for Straight Path Communications, a major holder of 28 and 39 gigahertz bands, paying twice what AT&T offered for the company last month.

Straight Path holds 133 licenses for 28 GHz spectrum and 735 licenses in the 39 GHz spectrum, which together cover the entire United States. For decades, these millimeter waves have been left dormant, with companies hewing to lower frequencies for 3G and 4G. But most companies believe that 5G will tap into both types of spectrum.

The lower bands are better at spanning long distances and penetrating buildings, but those available to be licensed are extremely scarce and expensive. On the other hand, millimeter waves are not only plentiful, but they also provide greater capacity and faster download speeds.

Both wireless carriers and chip suppliers have recoiled from higher bands because of their inherent limitations and the wide availability of lower frequencies. Millimeter waves can only travel over short distances before being absorbed by the atmosphere and they cannot pass through buildings or walls.

The Federal Communications Commission is aiming to open these underused airwaves in other ways. Last July, agency officials voted unanimously on rules that unsealed almost 11 GHz of millimeter wave spectrum above 28 GHz. The rule also opened unlicensed spectrum between the 64 GHz and 71 GHz bands.

Few options remain for licensing bread-and-butter frequency bands. AT&T said it was buying Straight Path shortly before federal regulators closed an auction of television spectrum in the 600 MHz band, one of communication’s sweet spots with better range and penetration than other bands.

The boldest bidder was T-Mobile, which paid around $8 billion for 1,525 licenses or 45% of the available spectrum, while Dish Network's $6.2 billion returned a quarter of the licenses. AT&T, which bought FiberTower earlier this year for 24 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum, placed few bids in the auction. Verizon declined to bid at all.

Over the next 39 months, the F.C.C. will repackage the spectrum and move broadcast stations to new channels, officially freeing up the bands. If all goes to plan, that process will end in the first half of 2020, the same year that wireless carriers plan to bootstrap the first commercial 5G networks online.

The large wireless carriers are already knee-deep in 5G testing. In February, AT&T announced that it had partnered with Nokia to stream television over 39 GHz bands. Verizon has started 5G technology trials using 28 GHz spectrum in five cities scattered around the United States.

Even though the bands are vital for 5G networks, Straight Path had not been using its licenses for anything. Last year, Federal regulators sued the firm for sitting on the spectrum and settled for $100 million. As part of the settlement, Straight Path was ordered to the sell its licenses, which sparked the bidding war that Verizon won last week.

"Verizon now has all of the pieces in place to quickly accelerate the deployment of 5G," said Hans Vestberg, Verizon’s executive vice president and president of global network and technology, in a statement. Verizon expects to close the deal within nine months, once it gains regulatory approval.

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