U.S. wireless giants Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility bought the most spectrum and spent the most money on airwaves in the recently completed 700 MHz auction, the FCC reported yesterday as part of the first disclosures regarding the bidding process.

In addition, the FCC declared it would not accept the lone bid on the D Block—the 10 MHz swath that was to be paired with 10 MHz of public-safety spectrum to provide the foundation of a nationwide broadband wireless network for public safety—and will “consider all options” for those frequencies.

Most industry observers expected Verizon and AT&T to lead the bidding, but the two leading U.S. wireless carriers dominated the auction, accounting for $16.0 billion of the $19.5 billion in high bids. Verizon committed $9.363 billion for its licenses, including the 22 MHz C Block across the continental United States. AT&T Mobility bid $6.636 billion for its licenses, which featured swaths in the B Block that are expected to complement the company’s $2.5 billion pre-auction purchase of nearby spectrum from Aloha Partners.

Almost half of the high-bid total was generated through the auction of the B Block.
Frontier Wireless—owned by satellite TV firm Echostar—outbid Qualcomm for most licenses in the E Block. Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said he expected Qualcomm to bid aggressively to complement the company’s existing spectrum holdings used for its MediaFLO mobile-video-broadcast application.

“What surprised me was that Echostar got some of the E Block,” Seybold said. “I thought Qualcomm was going to get it all for their MediaFLO.”

Also surprising was the amount of money bid on the 12 MHz B Block, which generated $9.144 billion—almost half of the high bids for the entire auction. As a point of comparison, the A Block—another 12 MHz swath that featured licenses with larger geographic territories than the B Block—attracted $3.961 billion in high bids, or less than half of the amount generated by the B Block.

“The A Block is adjacent to the spectrum that Echostar and [Qualcomm] are using for one-way [video applications],” Seybold said. “There is a concern, I think, about interference.

“Also, since the B Block licenses are smaller geographic areas, I think the bidding was more intense between AT&T, Verizon and some of the second-, third- and fourth-tier companies. … There were so many licenses that this was seen as the only band that a new regional player could be borne in or a regional player like Leap Wireless could expand in.”

Meanwhile, the FCC identified Qualcomm as the lone bidder on the D Block, having submitted a $472 million first-round offering. Seybold said he does not believe Qualcomm wanted the spectrum at that price but saw the D Block as a good place to use bidding credits to meet the FCC’s activity requirements to participate in the auction.

“I don’t think they were serious about bidding on the D Block,” Seybold said. “I think they were parking their money.”

Whatever the strategy, Qualcomm will not gain rights to the D Block through this auction, as the FCC yesterday said it would not award the swath based on the $472 million bid—an amount well below the FCC’s $1.3 billion reserve price for the spectrum.

“Because the aggregate reserve price for the D Block was not met, there is no winning bidder for that license,” the FCC stated in an order regarding the matter. “Given that the reserve price was met for all other blocks, we find it is in the public interest to provide additional time to consider all options with respect to the D Block spectrum.”
In prepared statements, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein described the inability to attract an acceptable D Block bid as “nothing less than a tragedy,” calling for a “top-to-bottom review of what went wrong, so we can make it work in the next round.”
Fellow Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said the lack of a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety is a “travesty” and that establishing such communication is “quite literally a matter of life and death” for first responders and the citizenry it protects.

Seybold said he believes the FCC should abandon the notion of a single operator building out the entire network—“that’s the worst thing that could happen,” he said. Instead, the FCC should consider plans that would allow multiple carriers to share in the buildout to a given standard or possibly mandate carriers to build out a portion of the network under the supervision of an independent integrator that would bid for the D Block spectrum.
“It gets built faster, it gets built cheaper, public safety is up and running faster, and we cover rural America,” Seybold said.

Potential roadblocks to such a proposal include determining which carriers would deploy which portions of the network and which would be able to use it under different scenarios, Seybold said. In addition, allocating monetary value to shared spectrum would be difficult for financial officers, but such obstacles can be overcome, he said.

“It would be difficult—I’m not saying this would be easy,” Seybold said. “People look at me and say, ‘You’re nuts. It’s never going to happen.’ I say, ‘Pay me half a million dollars per year, and I’ll make it happen.’”