Lackluster FCC auction casts doubt on the value of spectrum: Analyst

cell tower antennas
The FCC's incentive auction was once was predicted to generate $60 billion.

The wireless industry may see a flurry of spectrum deals once the FCC’s incentive auction of 600 MHz airwaves finally comes to a close, perhaps as soon as by the end of the month. But the question of just how valuable spectrum really is has never been murkier.

Stage 4 of the reverse portion of the FCC’s incentive auction ended Friday, with TV broadcasters setting a clearing cost of just more than $10 billion for up to 84 MHz of airwaves, falling dramatically short of the $40.3 billion set in Stage 3 and marking a tiny fraction of the $86 billion set in Stage 1.

That would bring a disappointing end to an auction that once was predicted to generate $60 billion or more as bidders—including carriers who have long expressed concerns about a “spectrum crisis”—vied for the 600 MHz airwaves often described as “beachfront” property. Indeed, Chairman Tom Wheeler said earlier this year he expected to see a “spectrum extravaganza” during the auction.

Auction anti-collusion rules have essentially prohibited carriers and would-be service providers from making any significant deals involving spectrum until the event comes to a close. For players such as Dish Network who may be looking to sell their spectrum assets, though, the lack of interest in low-band airwaves can’t be heartening.

“If the auction does end with prices anywhere close to these anemic levels, it will be two significant lines of inquiry,” MoffettNathanson wrote in a research note. “First, what do lower spectrum prices mean for valuations of spectrum plays like Dish Network, Globalstar, and even Sprint? And second, why might spectrum prices have fallen so sharply? Perhaps the most interesting question is, what does this mean for Dish Network?”

But the value of spectrum can vary based on several factors, of course, and a lackluster incentive auction doesn’t necessarily spell doom for companies sitting on unused airwaves. While 600 MHz spectrum is ideal for expanding coverage, mid- and high-band spectrum is better suited for improving capacity to deliver more data over shorter distances. And operators are increasingly looking to small cells to densify their networks, MoffettNathanson noted, making spectrum “something of a blunt instrument” to increase capacity.

But constrained budgets are likely also playing a role in the disappointing auction.

“It may also be the case that the sobriety in the current auction reflects the fact that the carriers’ balance sheets are stretched to the breaking point,” MoffettNathanson wrote. “Sprint has no money. AT&T is busy buying Time Warner. And Verizon has promised the ratings agencies and investors that it will de-lever.”