The rise of 5G is exciting, but taking full advantage of its potential is going to require carriers to expand their coverage into new parts of the RF spectrum. The FCC has been auctioning off the rights to some of these frequencies and has just completed the process for the 24GHz band while also announcing the winners of its 28GHz band auction. As was expected from the outset, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon were the largest bidders and winners of the processes.
In total, the two sales generated revenue of $2.7 billion and will distribute more than 5,800 licenses for internet service providers to operate 5G services on the millimeter wave spectrum.
Super-regional carrier U.S. Cellular took away 282 24GHz licenses and 408 28GHz licenses for roughly $256 million. Verizon took away nine 24GHz and 1,066 28GHz licenses for about $520 million. AT&T bid the most out of the major networks, coughing up $982 million for 831 24GHz licenses. T-Mobile, however, won 1,346 24GHz and 865 28GHz licenses at a cost of $842 million. Sprint did not participate in either auction. The 24GHz results are provisional until the FCC officially declares winning bids.
For T-Mobile, these batches of high-band frequency are key to its full 5G strategy, which currently relies on its low-band 600MHz spectrum as well as proposed merger partner Sprint's 2.5GHz cache. Those airwaves provide broad land coverage, but have limited potentials for speed. AT&T and Verizon are already operating millimeter wave networks and have been able to show off throughput of 1Gbps or more, though availability has been limited down to the city block or arena.
Pricing for each license is determined on a number of factors, including the population of the intended market area. For example, broadband company Windstream bid just over $27 million to get 116 24GHz and 106 28GHz licenses for relatively sparse regions. Satellite ISP Starry, which targets its services toward metropolitan areas, rounded up 104 24GHz plots for $48 million. Many rural and small carriers took part and were able to receive discounts of 15% and 25%, respectively, courtesy of the FCC.
Of course, these companies have only paid for the rights to transmit their 5G signals in the areas they're licensed to operate. They'll need to link up backhaul, antennae, and radios at major additional costs before any customer can begin using their 5G phone on that network.