The nation’s two largest wireless carriers weren’t very active during the FCC’s incentive auction of 600 MHz airwaves—Verizon, in fact, spent nothing. But many smaller operators and would-be service providers moved aggressively to add to their spectrum portfolios. As new maps from Mosaik illustrate, nobody was more aggressive than T-Mobile.
“T-Mobile is perhaps the biggest winner here,” Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson wrote this week in a research note to investors. “And theirs is the simplest story: They needed low-band spectrum and they got it. And they got it at a very good price.”
The No. 3 U.S. operator is “uniquely well-positioned” to grow its customer base by expanding its network coverage area and retail footprint, MoffettNathanson wrote, and its $8 billion spectrum buy will help pave the way. T-Mobile has said repeatedly it hopes to deploy services on some of its new airwaves as soon as this year, although much of the 600 MHz spectrum bought at auction won’t be made available for wireless for at least a few years.
Perhaps even more importantly, the new spectrum licenses will add negotiating leverage for T-Mobile to execute a merger or acquisition. Analysts generally expect to see a flurry of such discussions once the so-called anti-collusion period ends in about a week, and many believe President Trump’s administration will be far more likely to greenlight major deals than President Obama’s was.
T-Mobile has gained remarkable traction in the wireless market in the past three years largely by improving the quality of its network in urban areas. During the auction, though, it primarily focused on suburban and rural areas in states such as Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho.
The operator could be ripe for a merger with Sprint or could provide a path for another company looking to jump into the mobile game.
“(T-Mobile) can make a stronger case than ever that Sprint needs T-Mobile a lot more than T-Mobile needs Sprint,” Moffett wrote. “If there is a negative here, it is that Comcast’s more muted participation in the auction may actually make it harder to get a Sprint/T-Mobile merger through the Department of Justice. The best hope for merger approval has always been the argument that Comcast is a credible (facilities-based) competitor. That will be harder to argue now.”
Dish Network already had a pile of mid-band spectrum that it has yet to use, and recently the company outlined plans to build an NB-IoT network to provide connectivity to a wide range of devices other than traditional tablets and smartphones. Some analysts remain skeptical, though, believing that Dish plans to either sell or lease its spectrum, or partner with an existing service provider to join the wireless market.
Dish committed to spend $6.2 billion to buy 486 licenses, far exceeding the expectations of most analysts. While Deutsche Bank said the move could enable Dish to position itself as “a one-stop shop” for spectrum for any company hoping to jump into the mobile industry, MoffettNathanson said the hefty investment makes sense only if Dish truly does move ahead and build its own network.
“Leave aside the price signal here—the average price per MHz-POP in the just-ended auction was just 93 cents on a gross basis and 91 cents on a net basis, far below the average price currently being assigned to Dish’s spectrum holdings as implied by its current stock price. It is the strategic signal that really matters. Dish’s decision to load up on low frequency (coverage) spectrum makes no sense if they are planning to sell the rest of their spectrum … but it makes all the sense in the world if they are planning to build a network.”
While Dish was unexpectedly aggressive at auction, Comcast was surprisingly conservative. The cable operator agreed to spend $1.7 billion, buying 10 MHz of spectrum covering about 145M POPs in its own footprint within New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Comcast recently outlined plans to deploy its own wireless service using a combination of its own Wi-Fi hotspots and an MVNO deal to use Verizon’s network. Moffett had expected Comcast to spend as much as $6 billion acquiring spectrum, laying the groundwork for a bold move into wireless.
But its modest buy may signal Comcast is considering other ways of moving into mobile.
“Comcast bought spectrum covering just 145 million POPs—all for in-region PEAs (partial economic areas)—and passed on the five PEAs in the top 20 that are outside of its footprint … If they were planning on a deal down the road, Comcast arguably wasted a couple billion dollars. Still, it is hard to reconcile Comcast’s half-hearted participation with a serious expectation of going it alone.”
AT&T’s modest and highly targeted bids were no surprise given recent developments. The carrier will spend less than $1 billion to pick up spectrum in 18 PEAs, grabbing 30 MHz in Dallas and lesser amounts in smaller cities.
AT&T has moved aggressively to shore up its spectrum assets in recent months, and will get access to additional low-band spectrum after winning the right to build the first U.S. network dedicated to first responders. Similarly, Verizon added a significant chunk of millimeter-wave spectrum last year through a transaction with XO Communications.
“They already have a spectrum-rich portfolio, with AWS-3 and WCS bands that are still largely unused,” Moffett wrote of AT&T. “Their FirstNet 700 MHz award will augment their already robust coverage layer, while their recent acquisition of Straight Path’s millimeter wave spectrum—ignoring for a moment the risk that Verizon buys it away from them, as suggested by press reports on Thursday—positions the company well for 5G.”