Wireless industry cheers new spectrum auctions

Carriers are looking for additional spectrum to meet strong consumer demand for higher speeds and congestion-free networks.

By Trefis Feb 24, 2012 5:08PM
The asphyxiation may finally be over.

The wireless industry can breathe freely now that Congress has passed a payroll tax bill that also includes a plan to raise billions of dollars by auctioning off television airwaves. The proceeds from the auction will be used to fund an extension of jobless benefits as well as the creation of a nationwide public safety wireless network.

The bill is a significant victory for wireless carriers such as Verizon (VZ), Sprint (S) and especially AT&T (T), which is facing a severe spectrum crunch and has pushed Congress to free up more airwaves. See our complete analysis for AT&T.

The spectrum crunch


Wireless spectrum is the lifeblood of an intensely competitive U.S. market, where the number of wireless subscriber connections (327.6 million) exceeded the total population (315.5 million) of the United States last year. As an ever-increasing number of smartphone users demands higher speeds and congestion-free networks, wireless carriers need additional spectrum in order to meet these demands. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has spoken out about the impending spectrum crisis for two years now.


With the industry now moving toward a new high-speed 4G technology, LTE, we expect spectrum needs to further escalate. Verizon, the first to start deploying LTE, covers 200 million Americans in 195 U.S. markets with its LTE network. In comparison, AT&T has launched LTE in 28 markets, and covers only 74 million U.S. citizens. Smaller carriers such as Sprint have yet to launch their LTE network.


Verizon Share of Monthly Mobile Subscribers
Auction addresses AT&T's needs


Mounting spectrum needs make it imperative for the FCC to find ways of freeing up airwaves for the wireless industry. However, it was reluctant to allow any large-scale consolidation of the kind that AT&T ventured into, which would have created anti-competitive concerns. Government auction of airwaves, overseen by the FCC, will help the industry as a whole as well as avoid concentration of spectrum resources with a few.


Of all the wireless carriers, we feel AT&T will benefit most from this development after its proposed merger with T-Mobile was rejected last year. AT&T made the acquisition bid in order to satiate its spectrum needs, however it will now have to give up some spectrum licenses in a few key markets to T-Mobile as part of the breakup fee agreed upon.


AT&T Mobile Phone Market Share

Without a government auction of airwaves, AT&T would have been short on spectrum that it needs to compete with a bigger rival, Verizon, that looks ready to gain control of $3.6 billion worth of AWS spectrum licenses from the cable companies. (See Verizon scores huge win in $3.6 billion spectrum deal.)

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