Could the 700 MHz auction trigger spectrum caps?


Could the recently completed 700 MHz auction trigger spectrum caps--which were lifted in 2003--and other regulations on the mobile wireless industry?

Last week, some in Congress lamented that AT&T and Verizon Wireless walked away with the lion's share of the licenses. AT&T and Verizon Wireless spent $16 billion, or 85 percent of the total money raked in from the auction. Analysts believe the two now hold more than 95 megahertz of spectrum in several markets. 

According to an article in BusinessWeek, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told members of Congress during a hearing last week that he will look at whether the FCC should request winning bidders to dispose of some of that excess spectrum.

But Martin also found himself defending the auction and arguing against the notion that AT&T and Verizon won the lion's share of licenses. He pointed out that congressional leaders and other various parties had plenty of time last year to assist the FCC in crafting the auction rules. He also noted that small and rural providers won 500 licenses covering nearly 60 percent of the spectrum available outside the top 15 markets, in certain slices of spectrum that were available for sale at the auction. A total of 99 bidders other than Verizon and AT&T won 754 licenses-representing almost 70 percent of the licenses sold. And a bidder other than Verizon or AT&T won a license in every market.

Still, Verizon and AT&T spent the bulk of the money at auction. And that is to be expected. Simply put, these two incumbents have the wherewithal to spend billions on licenses and billions more to build out network infrastructure. That's their core business. And with the 700 MHz band the last of the so-called beach-front property, these operators were prepared to drive the price up to a hefty level, especially given the fact that new 4G networks need a nice chunk of extra spectrum, about 20 megahertz, to deliver the broadband data speeds that are advertised.  

The FCC has tried in the past to make special concessions for new and smaller entrants with disastrous effects. The PCS C-block auction resulted in bankruptcies and a number of companies essentially serving as shell companies for large incumbents.

In the wireless broadband world, I'd have to say that we are seeing some smaller companies find their niche. TowerStream is offering pre-WiMAX in several markets, successfully targeting the enterprise market with services that fixed incumbents can't offer. Xanadoo has spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band and is targeting consumers and small- to medium-sized businesses with WiMAX services to compete with DSL and cable offerings. The ISP offers seven different pricing plans beginning at $15 per month with plans to soon launch a prepaid wireless broadband offering. This large number of pricing plans is how Xanadoo is differentiating itself from DSL and cable, which typically only offer two different plans and require bundling of services.

And many winners of 700 MHz spectrum have varying business plans, with CenturyTel, for instance, using wireless to extend DSL over rural areas. Some will offer TV services. We have yet to hear about many of the winners' business plans.

In light of this, it's too early for the FCC to make any rash decisions about placing additional regulations on the mobile industry. And Congress should wait to see what the impact of the 700 MHz auction will really be.--Lynnette 

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