High Society

US spectrum auction shows millimetre wave is a valuable commodity

Last week, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the conclusion of bidding on spectrum in the 24 GHz band. Such high-band frequency spectrum, often referred to as millimetre wave, will be used by wireless carriers to deliver high-throughput, low-latency 5G services, particularly in densely populated areas. This is the FCC’s second auction this year of millimetre-wave spectrum after an auction of airwaves in the 28 GHz band in January 2019.

About 55 bidders preregistered for the 24 GHz auction, including cable companies and a variety of small, regional carriers. But in the end, AT&T and T-Mobile were the big spenders. However, there were some interesting twists.

AT&T spent $982 million for 831 licences covering 383 areas of the US. Each licence provides a width of 100 MHz of spectrum. T-Mobile paid $803 million for 1,346 licences covering 400 areas. Despite originally planning to deploy 600 MHz spectrum first, as part of plans to achieve nationwide 5G coverage, T-Mobile appears set to roll-out both low-band and millimetre-wave frequencies in 2019.

It’s notable that Verizon, the largest US carrier, spent only $15 million to grab nine licences. This is to enlarge its vast holdings of 28 GHz and 39 GHz millimetre-wave spectrum, which it has amassed by acquiring companies such as XO Communications and Straight Path.

Other winners of 24 GHz spectrum included US Cellular, the fifth largest provider of post-paid phone services in the country, which paid $127 million for 282 licences. Starry, a start-up looking to provide fixed-wireless broadband services took 104 licences for $48 million.

In previous generations of wireless services, millimetre-wave spectrum was considered all but useless for consumer devices. But 5G was designed to take advantage of high-band spectrum and hardware engineers have successfully shrunk millimetre-wave hardware into pocketable components. Already several 5G mobile hot spots and smartphones are commercially available including Netgear’s Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot, HTC’s 5G Hub, LG’s V50 ThinQ 5G smartphone and Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G phone.

The FCC’s next planned spectrum auction is scheduled for later in 2019. Auction 103, which includes the upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz bands, will represent the largest spectrum auction in the nation’s history, with 3,400 MHz up for bid.

Despite cautions about the cost and complexities of millimetre wave, T-Mobile clearly wants to be a member of high society, exploiting the strengths of millimetre-wave spectrum in places where it counts. The carrier may have bold ambitions for deployment of 5G networks using 600 MHz, but also sees the importance of being up there with AT&T and Verizon.