Three of the nation’s four largest wireless carriers are poised to bid in the upcoming FCC auctions of millimeter wave spectrum, according to a new FCC public notice. Millimeter wave spectrum is expected to support 5G wireless services offering speeds as high as a gigabit per second or more. And although some people have argued that millimeter wave 5G is unlikely to be deployed in rural areas, several small rural carriers also are on the list of potential millimeter wave auction bidders released by the commission.
Also among the potential bidders are U.S. Cellular, the nation’s largest regional wireless carrier; along with Cox Communications, Frontier Communications, Windstream and others.
The FCC is planning two millimeter wave auctions. Auction 101, which will include spectrum in the 28 GHz band, will begin November 14. Auction 102, focused on 24 GHz spectrum, will begin when Auction 101 is completed.
Of the nation’s four largest carriers, AT&T submitted complete applications to bid in Auction 101 and 102, while T-Mobile submitted incomplete applications for both, and Verizon submitted a complete application for Auction 102. Carriers that submitted incomplete applications have until October 23 to rectify the situation.
Millimeter Wave Auction Bidders
Millimeter wave spectrum bands are wider than the bands the FCC has traditionally auctioned. Auction 101 will include two blocks of 425 MHz of spectrum per county, while Auction 102 will include seven blocks of 100 MHz of spectrum per partial economic area (PEA).
The ability of millimeter wave spectrum to support the highest speed services relates in part to their ultra-high frequencies and in part to the breadth of the spectrum bands. The downside is that range is limited. Accordingly, carriers expect to use a mixture of millimeter wave and lower-frequency spectrum to support 5G.
AT&T and Verizon already have some millimeter wave spectrum holdings and their initial 5G deployment plans involve that spectrum, but undoubtedly the carriers are looking to expand those holdings.
Sprint, which was not on any of the millimeter wave spectrum bidder lists, has wide swaths of mid-band spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band, which the carrier plans to use for 5G. Sprint also may be waiting on the sidelines in anticipation of its planned merger with T-Mobile.
Of the four major carriers, T-Mobile would appear to have the most acute need for millimeter wave spectrum, as the company’s strategy apparently involves using the 28 GHz band and lower-bands for 5G.
The plan to award licenses by county or PEA suggests the auction could avoid winner-take-all results as would be seen with nationwide licenses.
Some people have argued that the short range that millimeter wave spectrum can support makes it unsuitable for deployment in sparsely populated rural areas. Nevertheless, some rural carriers appear on the lists of potential millimeter wave auction bidders.
Several of these are Verizon LTE in Rural America (LRA) partners, suggesting either that those companies may be hoping Verizon will share its 5G technology with them as it has done in the past or simply illustrating that Verizon LRA partners are some of the most successful rural wireless carriers.
It’s also possible that rural carriers are interested in millimeter wave spectrum as a means of extending fixed high-speed broadband wireless into outlying suburban areas of metro markets, in competition with cable and telco landline broadband providers – a strategy that some rural-focused wireless internet service providers including Rise Broadband already have used.
Meanwhile, U.S. Cellular has offered mixed messages about millimeter wave 5G for rural areas. The company’s wireless service area is quite rural, and early this year, the company said LTE would be a better choice for fixed wireless service. But that hasn’t prevented the company from conducting a fixed 5G trial using 28 GHz spectrum. And the company’s apparent interest in bidding in Auction 101 and Auction 102 suggests it sees some sort of potential for the millimeter wave band.