Image courtesy of Jonas Smith Creative Commons

Federal Spectrum Auction Opens 70 Megahertz for Mobile Broadband

April 19, 2017
A closely-watched federal auction of television spectrum made more space for mobile broadband applications in the 600 MHz bands.

Federal officials announced last week that a recent auction of television spectrum had repurposed 70 megahertz for mobile and broadband applications. Wireless carriers spent $19.8 billion to license the 600 MHz spectrum, which has better range and penetration than many other bands, while 14 MHz will remain unlicensed.

The Federal Communications Commission started the auction last year, breaking it into two phases. The reverse auction set prices at which television broadcasters would voluntarily sell their spectrum rights, which wireless carriers bid on during a forward auction. The new licensed spectrum will supplement the higher frequency bands that the telecom agency has authorized for 5G.

The FCC said that the 70 MHz is the most mobile broadband spectrum ever auctioned below 1 gigahertz. The boldest bidders were T-Mobile, which paid around $8 billion for 45% of the spectrum, and Dish Network, whose $6.2 billion in bids returned a quarter of the licenses. Verizon didn’t participate, while AT&T placed few bids.

The auction results only represent a fraction that the FCC has opened in the last year. Last July, agency officials voted unanimously on rules that freed up nearly 11 GHz of millimeter wave spectrum above 28 GHz. The rule also opened unlicensed spectrum between the 64 GHz and 71 GHz bands. Though the vote was unanimous, several commissioners were disappointed more bands were not included.

Wireless carriers are also using other tactics to break into higher bands. Last week, AT&T bought Straight Path Communications, one of the largest holders of 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands that have been approved under the recent federal rules. That $1.6 billion purchase built on its acquisition of FiberTower, which owns licenses in the millimeter wave 24 GHz and 39 GHz bands.

The FCC is paying out over $10 billion of the auction proceeds to the 175 broadcasters that agreed to relinquish their spectrum rights, having the airwaves repackaged for mobile broadband. Over the 39 months, the agency will repackage the spectrum and relocate broadcast stations to other channels, officially freeing up the bands.

If all goes according to plan, that period will end in the first half of 2020, the same year when wireless carriers expect to bring 5G communications online. These networks will likely run over a combination of millimeter wave bands, which can offer greater capacity and faster downloads, and the lower bands used by 4G networks.

“While we celebrate reaching the official close of the auction, there is still much work ahead of us,” said Ajit Pai, the FCC’s chairman, in a statement. “It’s now imperative that we move forward with equal zeal to ensure a successful post-auction transition, including a smooth and efficient repacking process.”

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