Verizon tops key spectrum auction in pursuit of T-Mobile's early 5G crown
On the very day that T-Mobile announced a massive 5G speed upgrade for more than 80 new cities and towns across the nation that couldn't have been possible without the "Un-carrier's" towering mid-band spectrum holdings, Verizon completed a substantial boost of its own related assets.
While far from surprising, this latest development in the battle for wireless industry supremacy highlights yet again that said war is not over yet, despite T-Mobile's crushing early lead in 5G availability and fast-growing customer numbers.
Everybody wants a piece of the mid-band pie
After betting on the wrong horse in the first stages of its 5G deployment, relying exclusively on blazing fast but horribly spotty mmWave technology, Big Red is turning its attention to mid-band spectrum, spending close to $1.9 billion in a recently concluded FCC auction kicked off way back in July.
Interestingly, Verizon was by far the greatest spender, but in terms of actual licenses won in this high-stakes auction, Dish came out on top despite coughing up "just" a little over $900 million. That suggests Sprint's replacement in the mobile carrier arena focused most of its bidding on smaller markets, unlike the nation's number one wireless service provider, which undoubtedly went after large cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston primarily.
With almost 5,500 new licenses added to an already extensive spectrum library... for a company that still doesn't run its own network, Dish is starting to look more and more serious about providing stiff competition for the likes of T-Mobile and AT&T before long. The two operators, by the way, were virtually absent from an auction that ended with gross proceeds of $4.6 billion, which might make sense as far as Magenta is concerned but not in Ma Bell's case.
While AT&T followed T-Mo's suit not long ago by turning on a "nationwide" low-band 5G network, its mid-band holdings were pretty much as modest as Verizon's prior to the CBRS auction. In case you're wondering, CBRS is not technically the same thing as the mid-band spectrum deployed by T-Mobile so far in the 2.5GHz frequency, taking that number up to 3.5GHz, which... isn't necessarily an advantage.
In fact, Verizon may need to spend a lot more money and settle for poorer coverage with its newly acquired 3.5GHz CBRS technology compared to T-Mo's much-lauded 2.5GHz mid-band 5G spectrum. Still, the availability improvements compared to Big Red's existing mmWave-based Ultra Wideband network will be immeasurable... once the licenses are actually put to commercial use.
Speaking of commercial use, it will certainly be interesting to see Charter and Comcast employ their 210 and 830 newly purchased cellular licenses respectively.
The cable giants were the auction's third and fourth-largest spenders, with $464 million and $458 million to their names respectively, but it remains to be seen if the spectrum will be put to use soon or simply hoarded in hopes of a future profit in a move known as a "Charlie Ergen."
For what it's worth, there's no indication that the two companies plan to follow in Dish's footsteps from before the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, with rampant reports instead hinting at the most honorable and ambitious intentions from both Charter and Comcast. Specifically, it appears that the wireless industry might become quite crowded in the near future, with the number of 5G networks likely to rise from three to four to as many as six fairly quickly.
Meanwhile, digital cable provider Cox Communications could be aiming to make a mobile comeback with the help of 470 new licenses after throwing in the wireless towel almost a decade ago, with US Cellular somewhat surprisingly spending a measly $13 million on 243 licenses to finish the auction in 18th place, behind much smaller names like Mediacom, Shentel, or Viaero.