Editor's Corner—Why Verizon didn’t buy any 600 MHz spectrum, and what it means for Big Red

Verizon sign

The FCC disclosed the results of the 600 MHz incentive auction, and perhaps the biggest surprise was the complete lack of participation by Verizon. What this means, at least immediately, is that Verizon won’t be able to augment its current coverage with the low-band 600 MHz licenses that are ideal for covering large geographic areas and reaching inside buildings.

"Verizon cannot comment on the results because the FCC’s mandated quiet period continues to apply until down payments are due, which is not for a couple of weeks," a Verizon spokesman told me when I asked why the carrier didn't get any spectrum in the auction. "Verizon is confident, however, in its network position, including its approach to acquiring, managing, and re-farming its spectrum assets to support the network that continues to generate top ratings for customer performance."

Verizon’s decision not to participate in the auction is particularly surprising given the carrier just a few weeks ago launched unlimited data plans that will likely put a further strain on its wireless network.

Moreover, Verizon has been a major participant in all of the FCC’s spectrum auctions up until this point. Much of Verizon’s initial LTE network was built on the $10 billion worth of 700 MHz C Block spectrum it purchased during the FCC’s last low-band spectrum auction in 2008.

More recently, Verizon spent roughly $10.4 billion on the midband AWS-3 spectrum that the FCC auctioned around three years ago. The carrier also made clear its desire for midband spectrum in 2011 when it purchased a trove of AWS spectrum licenses from a group of cable operators. (But Verizon has also seen fit to ditch unwanted spectrum; in 2014 the carrier sold its Lower A Block 700 MHz spectrum to T-Mobile for around $2.4 billion.)

Although Verizon’s top management, including the company’s new wireless CEO, Ronan Dunne, opted not to buy any 600 MHz licenses, the operator still has plenty of options when it comes to spectrum. For years, analysts have discussed the possibility that Verizon will ink some kind of agreement with Dish Network. Dish, for its part, has been collecting a vast trove of spectrum licenses, mainly in the midband range.

And today it became clear that Dish is doubling down on its spectrum-collection strategy; the company spent more than twice what some analysts expected in the 600 MHz incentive auction by doling out more than $6 billion for additional spectrum.

While Dish has hinted that it might use its vast trove of spectrum to build out some kind of internet-of-things network, possibly using NB-IoT network technology, many in the industry believe that it’s more likely that Dish will simply ink a spectrum sale or leasing agreement with a company like T-Mobile, Comcast or—most likely—Verizon.

Indeed, Verizon may have already set a precedent for this kind of deal via its 2011 purchase of AWS spectrum through Comcast and other cable companies. Rather than an outright purchase of the licenses, Verizon agreed to remain open to an MVNO relationship with the cable operators, presumably lowering the price tag for the spectrum in return. (Comcast recently activated that agreement through its recent launch of its Xfinity Mobile MVNO, which uses Verizon’s LTE network.) Verizon could well ink a similar MVNO agreement with Dish in order to get access to Dish’s spectrum—including the 600 MHz licenses Dish won at auction.

But Dish isn’t the only company that owns spectrum Verizon might buy. Moreover, low-band spectrum like 600 MHz isn’t the only kind of spectrum Verizon might be interested in. Already the carrier has purchased XO Communications in part to obtain that company’s portfolio of high-band, millimeter-wave spectrum licenses. It is precisely those spectrum bands that will likely form the basis of 5G. Verizon has already deployed fixed 5G equipment in more than 10 cities across the country with the goal of offering superfast, short-range wireless connections in place of costly fiber outlays.

"What is most interesting to us was VZ was nowhere to be found. While it does have a tremendous amount of 700MHz spectrum (upper C block), we continue to believe VZ's interests lay in the higher band spectrum assets (2GHz and higher)," wrote Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche in a note to investors immediately after the FCC released its results from the auction.

But, to be clear, Verizon might not need additional spectrum in the near term at all, despite the company’s newfound embrace of unlimited wireless data. Verizon has been vocal in discussing its move toward C-RAN network architecture and its small cell deployments, as well as its use of other advanced network technologies like two- and three-carrier aggregation, MIMO and LTE Unlicensed. All of these techniques and technologies promise to allow Verizon to more efficiently use the spectrum assets it already has.

Nonetheless, I’m still surprised that Verizon opted out of the FCC’s incentive auction. Sprint also did not participate in the event, but that carrier continues to work to build out its 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses. And AT&T also didn’t spend much in the incentive auction, but that’s likely because the carrier recently inked an agreement with FirstNet that will give AT&T access to FirstNet’s 700 MHz spectrum holdings. Thus, due to Verizon’s 600 MHz absence, T-Mobile is free to use its 600 MHz winnings as another talking point in its argument that it will overtake Verizon in terms of network coverage and performance.

Verizon’s leadership clearly believed the carrier doesn’t need low-band spectrum, but I think it’s a safe bet that Verizon will participate in the industry M&A that’s likely to get underway later this month, following the end of the FCC’s auction quiet period. —Mike | @mikeddano

Article updated April 14 with comment from Verizon and others.