Top US carriers Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile were the winners of an $81 billion auction for highly coveted 5G airwaves.
According to the research data analyzed and published by Sijoitusrahastot, Verizon placed the top bid of $45.45 billion through its Cellco subsidiary. AT&T took second place with a $23.41 billion bid placed through AT&T Spectrum Frontiers.
In third place was T-Mobile with a $9.34 billion bid. In total, the three top carriers bid $78.2 billion, accounting for 90% of the licenses that were up for auction.
The remaining 10% went to United States Cellular Corporation and New Level II L.P., which bid $1.282 billion and $1.277 billion, respectively. US Cellular is ranked as the fourth-largest carrier in the US. On the other hand, New Level II is a representative for Grain Management, a private equity firm.
In terms of the number of licenses issued, Cellco Partnership (Verizon) took the lead with 3,511 out of 5,684 licenses or 56% of the total. It more than doubled AT&T’s 1,621 licenses, which was 29% of the available tally. US Cellular was third with 254 licenses, T-Mobile fourth with 142, and Canopy Spectrum fifth with 84.
Commonly referred to as the Goldilocks spectrum, the airwave in question is mid-band spectrum. That means the frequency of the wavelength is in the middle, not too high or too low.
Very high frequencies pump large amounts of data but only travel short distances. The lowest frequencies travel long distances but are limited in the amount of data they can transmit. The Mid-band spectrum is, therefore, ideal for 5G in the sense that it travels long distances and transmits large amounts of data at high speed.
T-Mobile’s Spectrum Holdings Rise to 301 MHz vs Verizon’s 192 MHz
There were 280 megahertz of spectrum available, split into blocks of 20 MHz in 406 geographic regions.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), all bidders spent a total of $80.9 billion on the auction. There were 97 bidding rounds and the total was much higher than its summer forecast range of $20 to $30 billion.
The auction left a significant dent on the balance sheets of the three top US carriers, especially Verizon and AT&T. In order to secure the spectrum, Verizon secured two loans worth a total of $25 billion, payable in full a year from the funding date. AT&T borrowed $14 billion from a group of banks.
T-Mobile already had licenses for a different block of mid-band spectrum. This is courtesy of its $26 billion purchase of Sprint in April 2020. Verizon and AT&T, however, did not have much of it. The three companies have invested billions to make their 5G networks a reality.
If Evercore’s analysis proves accurate, Verizon will end up with 192 MHz of mid-band spectrum after the recent win. Comparatively, T-Mobile could have up to 301 MHz and AT&T at 167 MHz.
According to the analysts, if Verizon had purchased all of the mid-band spectrum that was up for grabs, it would only have surpassed T-Mobile’s holdings by 16%.
US Big Three Carriers’ Capex was 55% of Expenditure On Mid-Band Spectrum
Verizon attempted to make up for its lack of mid-band spectrum with ultra-wideband 5G. Though the option offers high speed, the waves do not travel fast. The auction win means it can now build a high-speed network without having to build towers on every block.
After its purchase of Yahoo and AOL, Verizon took an all-in approach to 5G, sticking to its core competency. In 2020 it maintained its top ranking in network quality for the 26th consecutive time in 13 years according to the JD Power rating. It broke the record for the most awarded brand for JD Power Wireless Network Quality.
On the other hand, AT&T has considerable investments in media properties including WarnerMedia and DirecTV. WarnerMedia faces tough competition in the streaming sector from Disney and Netflix. AT&T has been under pressure to sell DirecTV as many industry experts consider it a failure.
In Q4 2020, AT&T took a $15.5 billion write-down on video assets in its DirecTV segment and a $780 million write-down due to WarnerMedia losses. Revenue from WarnerMedia dropped 9.5% during the quarter to $8.5 billion.
AT&T’s capex for 2020 was $15.6 billion, and it reported $171.8 billion in revenue and income of $5.2 billion. Verizon’s capex for 2020 amounted to $18.2 billion, with revenue at $109.9 billion and $18.3 billion in net income. T-Mobile’s capex was $11 billion, and it reported $68.4 billion in annual revenue, with net income at $3 billion.
Overall, the three carriers’ collective capex for 2020 was a mere 55% of the amount they spent on mid-band spectrum licensing.