12.02.11

Discretion is the better part of valor…

Posted in Financials, Regulatory, Spectrum at 12:24 pm by timfarrar

After losing an arm and a leg on their investments in Clearwire, and being utterly unsuccessful in their repeated attempts to sell wireless services, Comcast, TWC and BrightHouse have now apparently concluded that its not worth incurring any more flesh wounds in their attempts to become competitors in the wireless market and have agreed to sell their AWS spectrum holdings to Verizon. Of course, this acknowledges that smaller players will basically find it impossible to challenge the dominance of Verizon and AT&T in the US wireless market.

This deal puts further pressure on AT&T to buy DISH, if (and when?) the proposed T-Mobile merger finally falls apart. However, it leaves TMO in a much more difficult situation, with no easy way to acquire more AWS spectrum (at least prior to a future AWS-3 auction) and no potential cable partnership. As a result, the most likely outcome in my view would be for the FCC to make any AT&T/DISH purchase conditional on providing TMO and others with wholesale access to the network if the potential AT&T/T-Mobile network sharing agreement does not come to fruition.

Clearwire is also left with one less potential purchaser for its spectrum, now that Verizon has satisfied its spectrum needs for most of the next decade (and recall that T-Mobile looked at the Clearwire spectrum last year and decided not to buy any of it). Yesterday’s announcement of a deal with Sprint kicks the can down the road a little, but actually reduces Sprint’s near term payments to Clearwire, unless Clearwire is able to raise additional equity funding. However, that might be challenging in current market conditions unless Clearwire has a new potential strategic investor lined up. The obvious candidate would be China Mobile, which has a strong interest in establishing TD-LTE in the 2.5GHz band as a widely used international 4G standard (something of strategic importance for the Chinese government, given the earlier failure to ensure widespread adoption of TD-SCDMA as a 3G standard).

Another interesting factor to consider is the price paid by Verizon for the spectrum, which some are claiming “ratchets up the price of spectrum“, because SpectrumCo is making a profit on the extraordinarily low price it paid through a smart bidding strategy in the auction. In fact at $0.69/MHzPOP the price is almost identical to that paid by Verizon for its AWS spectrum in the auction 5 years ago (the quoted price then was $0.73/MHzPOP but the number of POPs is not directly comparable because the 2006 POPs were based off the 2000 census and Verizon’s stated 259M POPs for these licenses presumably relates to the 2010 census), and very likely was used as the benchmark in negotiating the value of the current transaction. In the intervening 5 years the AWS block has been cleared and has an established chipset ecosystem, thereby become much more readily usable, but Verizon is not paying any more for this spectrum. Certainly it makes recent assertions by Brattle Group that generic “unencumbered spectrum” (such as LightSquared’s spectrum with a waiver) should have a value of roughly $1.00/MHzPOP look hugely exaggerated.

UPDATE: If this really is “the end of broadband competition” as some believe, then its pretty obvious what the FCC does next, simply mandate wholesale access to Verizon and AT&T’s networks (as conditions on the purchase of SpectrumCo and DISH respectively). That enables two high capacity national LTE networks to be built and allows cable companies (on the Verizon network) and TMO (on the AT&T network), as well as smaller players, to compete for wireless customers, but leaves wholesale business plans like Clearwire and LightSquared out in the cold. Sprint gets stuck with a second rate LTE network using the spectrum (SMR, G-block, BRS/EBS) that no-one else wants.

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