CenturyLink: We won’t buy spectrum at auction

CenturyLink sign on building (free to use)
CenturyLink is one of the nation's largest wired internet providers. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

CenturyLink continues to investigate how it might deploy wireless technology to reach customers more easily in rural areas, but don’t expect the company to purchase significant chunks of spectrum to do so.

“If you look at unlicensed spectrum in the rural, it's not as much of a problem as unlicensed spectrum in an urban market,” said CEO Jeff Storey during CenturyLink’s recent quarterly conference call with analysts, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. “I don't see us going out and being a major buyer of spectrum in wireless, but we're open to how do we best serve our customers and what things make sense.”

Storey’s comments, in response to a question on the topic, don’t come as much of a surprise. Neither CenturyLink nor Level 3, which CenturyLink acquired and is in the process of integrating, has participated in a meaningful way in any of the FCC’s recent spectrum auctions.

But the topic is noteworthy considering Storey reiterated this week that CenturyLink is “investigating how we can use a hybrid fiber wireless network to deliver services.” That position isn’t new—CenturyLink executives said essentially the same thing in May—but CenturyLink would need to run its wireless operations over some spectrum band.

CenturyLink isn’t alone in looking at wireless technologies to extend the reach of its internet services, particularly in rural areas. AT&T, Windstream, Frontier and a wide range of other companies are either researching similar activities or are in the process of deploying services.

Further, CenturyLink isn’t alone in looking to avoid the costs of purchasing licensed spectrum through an auction by using unlicensed spectrum instead. Indeed, C Spire is using a similar strategy with its own fixed wireless network buildout.

CenturyLink’s pre-emptive withdrawal from future spectrum auctions would seem to leave fewer players to challenge the likes of AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile that might bid in the FCC’s upcoming millimeter-wave spectrum auctions. Those auctions would represent the first time in decades that the agency will release high-band spectrum in an auction; those types of spectrum licenses have suddenly become of interest in wireless thanks to new technologies like 5G that make transmissions in millimeter-wave spectrum bands faster and more reliable.

Executives also hinted recently that Dish network likely won’t participate in the FCC’s upcoming auctions, which is noteworthy considering the company has been an active bidder in many of the agency’s recent auctions over the past few years.