FCC Spectrum Auction Attracts Motley Crew of Hopeful Bidders

The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday published the list of companies that have applied to participate in its auction of the 700 MHz (megahertz) band of wireless spectrum next month, and included among the long list of expected players were a few surprises.

Oil giant Chevron, for one, apparently plans to bid, as does billionaire entrepreneur and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who applied via Vulcan Spectrum. Also included were expected participants such as AT&T, Qualcomm, Alltel, MetroPCS, Verizon and Google, applying under the name Google Airwaves.

A total of 266 companies have applied, but only 96 applications have been officially accepted — the remaining 170 are still incomplete, the FCC says. Participants now have until Jan. 4 to complete their applications and submit their payments, thanks to an extension the FCC also made on Tuesday; previously, the deadline had been Dec. 28.

In accordance with the auction rules, no information is available as to which block of spectrum the companies plan to bid on or how much they will pay to the FCC.

Varying Prices

The 700 MHz band of wireless spectrum, previously used by TV stations, is widely desired because of its ability to travel long distances and go through walls. Now that TV broadcasters are moving to digital distribution, the FCC plans to auction off those bands starting Jan. 24.

Bidding will be conducted in stages via an electronic, anonymous process, and winners won’t be announced until the auction is concluded. In addition to rescheduling the upfront payment deadline, the FCC has also moved its mock auction to Jan. 22.

Google and others lobbied earlier this year to ensure that whoever wins the much-sought-after “C Block” portion of the spectrum up for auction will be required to allow users to download any software application they want onto their mobile devices, and to use any mobile devices they would like on that wireless network. The C Block’s reserve price at auction is US$4.6 billion.

Other financial deposits required from participants depend on which licenses they plan to bid on, so that the more spectrum blocks they are eligible to bid on, the more they must deposit.

In all, the FCC auction is expected to raise at least $15 billion, with some estimates as high as $30 billion.

‘A Free-for-All’

“Having such a large number of both expected and unexpected bidders just confirms how valuable and rare the spectrum is,” Paul Gallant, a telecom policy analyst with Stanford Group, told the E-Commerce Times. “This certainly supports the view that the auction will be a free-for-all, where the minimum bids are quite likely to be met.”

Just what many of the participants — smaller ones, in particular — have in mind should they win spectrum remains to be seen.

“Many of these are very local, smaller players, and it’s hard to imagine they’re going for anything nationwide,” Ira Brodsky, president of Datacomm Research, told the E-Commerce Times. “Ultimately, it may come down to AT&T, Verizon, Alltel and Google for the big chunks of spectrum.”

Also notable about the list are the companies that are conspicuously absent, including Sprint and a variety of WiMax players, Brodsky added. “Sprint, for example, has PCS spectrum, so if it could get into lower-frequency stuff, it would be much more competitive,” he noted.

Strange Bedfellows

Paul Allen’s involvement via Vulcan “is very interesting,” Bill Hughes, a principal analyst for In-Stat, told the E-Commerce Times.

“On the one hand, Vulcan invests in a lot of interesting technologies, and the fact that they are participating in this is good news for the government and good news for potential customers because they are a viable competitor with a lot of money backing them up,” Hughes explained. “Of course, they’ve flown in under the radar, so I have no idea what they plan to do.”

Chevron’s involvement, meanwhile, “strikes me as strange,” Hughes added.

“They have a lot of private wireless networks, but there’s a big difference between having your own wireless network for refining and distribution and franchising gas stations, and being a wireless service provider,” he said. “They have the money required, but nothing leaps to mind as to why this would be a good fit for them.”

Arbitrage Plans

The lists seem to include a number of organizations that are likely looking to arbitrage a winning bid, Hughes noted.

“By that, I mean that if they win an auction, they plan to sell the rights to another organization that, for some reason, finds that it needs that property to complete a contiguous region,” Hughes explained. Such a strategy was common with cellular licenses, he noted.

One big difference, however, is that cellular licenses were allocated by the FCC using a lottery system. “I am not sure how you would expect to win with an auction,” he said. “Actually, I am pretty sure that the FCC actively worked to avoid this kind of business plan by requiring there be skills to build out a network, not just money to buy and sell.”

Small Companies, Uncertain Success

Regarding the many regional phone companies that plan to bid, “I can see their motivation for bidding, but I am doubtful that the boundaries line up with service areas,” Hughes said.

For example, Whidbey Telephone is a company that serves Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. It is about 30 miles north of Seattle and serves 60,000 people, including 20,000 in the town of Oak Harbor, which is “known mostly in the Seattle area as a place for second homes and sightseeing,” Hughes explained.

WhidbeyTel does not have spectrum for cellular and does not resell any of the existing carriers, “probably because it is not profitable enough,” Hughes explained. Yet it does plan to bid in the auction.

“They apparently want to add wireless service to their portfolio, which is a reasonable aspiration given their situation,” he explained. “Their problem is that I am sure that there is not a license just for Whidbey Island. Being so close as the crow flies, they will be bidding against other organizations that have greater aspirations than just serving Whidbey Island.

“I’m sure they are aware of this situation and wish them well, but they will only succeed if some bidding strategies around them work out in their favor,” he concluded.

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