Verizon and AT&T sat on their hands at auction, leaving the door open for small carriers and potential newcomers

Dish satellite dishes
Reticence on the part of Verizon and AT&T left the door open for Dish Network and others at auction. (Dish)

The nation’s two largest mobile network operators pretty much sat on their hands during the FCC’s incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum—and that left the door open for rural carriers and players that have yet to launch wireless services to walk away as winners.

T-Mobile was the top bidder in the high-profile auction, agreeing to pony up nearly $8 billion to add to its portfolio of low-band airwaves. AT&T committed to spend only $910 million at auction, and Verizon surprisingly opted to spend nothing despite qualifying for the event. Sprint opted out of the auction from the outset.

So deep-pocketed companies that aren’t yet in the wireless game rounded out the top three bidders. Dish Network, which already sits atop a pile of mid-range spectrum and has announced its intentions to build an NB-IoT network, committed to spend $6.2 billion. Comcast, which recently outlined plans to deploy its own wireless service, will spend $1.7 billion.

Meanwhile, 23 of the 50 winning bidders are players who already provide wireless services in rural areas, as Telecompetitor noted, and many others are also small regional players. As in the earlier auction of 700 MHz spectrum, the FCC implemented rules aimed at giving smaller carriers a better chance to compete with the nationwide rivals: Companies with average gross revenues of less than $40 million during the last three years are eligible to receive 15% in bidding credits, and those with average gross revenues of less than $15 million can receive 25% in bidding credits.

Some regional carriers are too big to qualify for bidding credits, however. U.S. Cellular, for instance, will have to pay the $329 million it agreed to spend for 188 licenses.

Those smaller carriers simply must continue to leverage new spectrum to compete with their bigger rivals, of course. And Comcast has made no secret of its plans to leverage its own spectrum as it couples its hotspot network with Verizon’s cellular infrastructure to enter the wireless market.

One looming question, though, is why Dish bid so aggressively when it has yet to leverage the spectrum it already owns. Many analysts have questioned whether Dish truly wants to operate its own IoT-centric network, speculating that it continues to bide its time as it seeks a service provider eager to buy or lease its airwaves.

“We had expected Dish to spend $2 billion or less, vs. an actual $6 billion investment,” Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a note to investors. “We think the rationale was to build a complete spectrum portfolio, with significant holdings in both mid and low frequency bands. In doing so, Dish becomes a one-stop shop for spectrum for any company looking to enter the wireless market on the back of its own network buildout. This gives Dish more options, at least in theory, to monetize its spectrum in the future.”