Analysts expect incentive auction to generate between $32.8B and $43.8B

The FCC's upcoming incentive auction of 600 MHz airwaves likely won't generate as much money as last year's auction of AWS-3 spectrum, according to Evercore ISI analysts.

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are all expected to be active bidders in the forward portion of the incentive auction, which will see the government sell off TV broadcasters' spectrum. Comcast and Dish Network have also completed applications to participate, as has Social Capital, a venture capital firm founded by Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive.

But while some analysts predicted months ago that the auction could generate $60 billion to $80 billion, the apparent lack of a deep-pocketed dark horse may prevent the event from becoming the "spectrum extravaganza" FCC Tom Wheeler has predicted. The auction is likely to raise $32.8 billion to $43.8 billion, Evercore analysts Jonathan Schildkraut and Justin Ages wrote, shy of the $44.9 billion generated by the AWS-3 event (prior to credits doled out by the Commission, Evercore said).

"We believe the carriers are tempering expectations ahead of the 600 MHz auction," the analysts wrote. "While other participants (aside from tier-one carriers) only bought (roughly) 2.3 percent of the AWS-3 spectrum, we think 15 to 20 percent is a more likely range this time given: (1) the expected lower price point and (2) the foundational capacity that comes with 600 MHz spectrum vs. the AWS-3, which is more suited to overlay."

Evercore predicted AT&T could walk away with 30.8 percent of all the airwaves sold at auction, spending $11.7 billion for 20 MHz. T-Mobile could spend $7.3 billion for 12 MHz, claiming 19.2 percent of the spectrum sold, and Verizon could pay $5.9 billion for 10 MHz.

Interestingly, Evercore said Sprint parent SoftBank could spend the same amount of money as Verizon during the auction, also pocketing 15.4 percent all the airwaves sold. SoftBank's name doesn't appear on the FCC's list of applicants to participate, but Evercore said it may have applied under a different name.

Sprint won't participate in the auction.

Evercore noted that Wheeler recently told a Senate subcommittee that the auction may extend into 2017 if it doesn't raise enough to pay broadcasters for their spectrum. The possibility of an extended timeframe is one reason the FCC is requesting an additional $11 million in federal funds, Wheeler explained.

"Our checks… suggest that the intent of the funds are unclear, but one possibility may be that Chairman Wheeler is using the auction as a way to request more funds from the wireless carriers," the analysts wrote. "This will allow (1) more to be paid to the TV broadcasters and (2) the 39-month period to repack the TV stations to be held. Importantly, if the forward auction points to lower spectrum values… and the 600 MHz auction does meet its goals, other spectrum opportunities (Dish, FirstNet, etc.) may become more valuable."

Related articles:
Wheeler tells legislators incentive auction could extend into 2017
J.P. Morgan: FCC's 600 MHz incentive auction likely to fetch only $25B to $35B
600 MHz incentive auction primer: Who will bid, when it will happen, how it will work, and how much money it will raise

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