01.31.15

How to blow up a spectrum auction…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 4:00 pm by timfarrar

Despite it coming as a “surprise” to many reporters (and Wall St analysts) that DISH ended up with more total winning bids (before DE discounts) than Verizon in the AWS-3 spectrum auction, and that DISH got a 25% DE discount on its bids, the outcome is exactly what I predicted from the bidding patterns back in November. I was particularly amused to look back at Jonathan Chaplin’s comment from his December 7 report which poured scorn on my thesis, stating:

Some have suggested that DISH is distorting prices by bidding against themselves (DISH has three bidding entities that can’t communicate with each other during the auction). While possible, this is highly, highly unlikely.

[As a reader suggests, perhaps I should take this opportunity to note Chaplin's follow-up proposal on January 11 that DISH should do a LightSquared and set up a wholesale capacity business generating $10B per year. While possible, this is highly, highly unlikely.]

Its useful to examine exactly why DISH was so successful in driving up the price of the AWS-3 paired spectrum to a price far beyond anyone’s expectations. One of the key objectives for a bidder in the early rounds of an auction is to discover the amount of spectrum that its rivals are looking to acquire (only later does it become possible to discover how much they are prepared to pay for that spectrum). The price usually rises fastest in the key cities and then as the mix of demand becomes clear, bidders can switch over to second tier licenses knowing roughly how much spectrum they will end up being able to win.

We know that AT&T was looking to buy a paired 10MHz block, and it seems likely that Verizon would have been seeking roughly the same. Meanwhile T-Mobile wanted to selectively pick up one or two paired 5MHz blocks. If DISH hadn’t been bidding then everyone could have got what they wanted at close to the reserve price. However, adding DISH to the mix meant that the four key players were trying to buy more than the 2x25MHz of paired spectrum that was available.

More importantly, DISH was bidding through three separate entities and instructed them to bid on all the licenses simultaneously in key cities, to ensure that AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile simply didn’t know how much spectrum each other and DISH were looking to buy.

The chart below shows the bidding patterns for the G, H, I and J blocks in New York (the G block is a smaller 2x5MHz CMA license, while the H and I blocks are 2x5MHz BEA licenses and the J block is a 2x10MHz BEA license).

We can see that all three DISH entities bid on every one of the New York paired license blocks they weren’t already holding all the way through Round 15, by which time the total combined gross price had reached $2.81B ($2.28/MHzPOP). In fact, it wasn’t until Round 18 (when the price reached $3.81B or $3.12/MHzPOP) that DISH’s bidding on these licenses began to slow (and SNR even overbid its own winning bid in Round 17).

[Incidentally, DISH's 3 entities combined were the biggest bidder for much of the auction, notably as late as Round 63, where they held $14.7B of gross PWBs or 35% of the $41.6B total, compared to $12.6B for AT&T, $10.5B for Verizon and $2.1B for T-Mobile. When the reserve price was met in Round 13, DISH held a total of $5.4B of PWBs, 44% of the $12.3B auction total at that point in time, compared to only $2.7B for AT&T, $2.1B for Verizon and $1.3B for T-Mobile.]

DISH clearly wrote the instructions to its DEs very well, because in the end there were very few cases where the final winning bid from SNR was topping an existing bid from NorthStar or vice versa (the largest license I’ve seen where this happened is the B1 unpaired license in Tampa BEA034 which sold for $21.4M before the DE discount). And it does seem that DISH complied with the letter of the rules: even though the FCC still needs to rule on whether the DE discount should be granted, it seems unlikely the FCC would want the auction to descend into chaos (which could theoretically result in a re-run).

However, its clear that the rules for future auctions will need to be rewritten significantly – I would expect severe restrictions on DE discounts and common ownership of different bidding entities at the very least. Indeed, it will now be very difficult to come up with a workable structure to advantage smaller operators like Sprint and T-Mobile in the incentive auction next year.

Where does the outcome leave us? Ergen did not buy a readily deployable collection of spectrum, instead seeking a blocking position in key cities (including New York and Chicago) in an attempt to force other operators to make a deal with him. Interestingly, most of DISH’s paired AWS-3 spectrum is in the G block, which is adjacent to and perhaps more quickly usable with the AWS-1 spectrum band, rather than being aggregated directly with the adjacent AWS-4 downlinks in the longer term like the J block. DISH also acquired most of the unpaired uplink blocks, which appears to be a hedge against the potential (and now perhaps likely) loss of LightSquared.

However, with AT&T winning enough AWS-3 to meet its spectrum needs (and make it highly indebted) for the next few years (not to mention AT&T’s ownership of DirecTV which makes a tie-up with DISH very difficult), it seems clear that Ergen is setting his sights squarely on a deal to sell DISH (or perhaps more likely lease its spectrum, given the difficulty of reaching agreement on a sale price) to Verizon.

So now, as I pointed out in November, the key question is whether Sprint will take this opportunity to satisfy Verizon’s spectrum needs through a sale of 2.5GHz spectrum? Given everyone in the industry is fed up with Charlie, that certainly seems like a plausible next step.

01.29.15

The NextWave of Charlie’s strategy…

Posted in DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 5:43 pm by timfarrar

The AWS-3 auction has finally closed today, after lasting far longer and attracting much higher bids than anyone thought possible. So now we are confronted with a flood of headlines saying the auction “has raised” $44.9B.

Of course that is not true. The total of Provisional Winning Bids is $44.9B. But look carefully at the FCC’s own blog post about the auction results. This blog post indicates the auction raised $7B for public safety, $300M for research, $115M for grants, funding for relocation (estimated at a total of $5.1B before the auction), plus “more than $20 billion” for deficit reduction.

So by my count that totals $32.5B. How can that be when the winning bids totaled $44.9B? The answer is that total amount raised will be reduced by any discounts accruing to Designated Entities, who are entitled to a 25% discount. And we know that Ergen is backing two DEs (SNR and NorthStar) in the auction. While the FCC is not going to give an exact figure for the amount raised, until they announce the winning bidders tomorrow (Friday), why wouldn’t the FCC have trumpeted “more than $30B” or even “more than $25B” raised for deficit reduction if they could make that statement? (Note: Walt Piecyk believes it is because the original 2012 legislation projected $20.4B would be available for deficit reduction).

If the amount raised for deficit reduction is less than $30B then that puts the DE discount at more than $2.4B, implying the DEs won more than $9.6B of PWBs and spent more than $7.2B net. If the amount raised for deficit reduction is less than $25B then that puts the DE discount at more than $7.4B, implying the DEs won more than $29.6B of PWBs and spent more than $22.2B net. And no-one has come up with a plausible case for any DEs other than those backed by Ergen to have billions of dollars available to spend on spectrum.

So it looks like Ergen is going to come out with what’s very likely more than $10B in PWBs and perhaps even $20B+ in PWBs before his 25% discount. That would be a severe disappointment to those who believe that there is unprecedented demand for spectrum, because the result will have been dictated by Ergen’s desire to corner the spectrum market, taking advantage of a windfall discount granted him by the FCC. It would certainly contradict the consensus of Wall St analysts, who apparently can’t conceive of Ergen actually wanting to bet the company on buying up spectrum.

UPDATE (1/30): The FCC has now released the full results, confirming that the final total of net winning bids is $41.3B, with $3.3B of the $3.5B in DE discounts accruing to SNR and NorthStar (i.e. DISH). That means that the amount raised for deficit reduction is less than $30B (actually just under $29B) and we are certainly set for a battle over whether DISH’s “small business” discount is warranted. The results also basically confirm my guesses about the double bidding in Round 36 and elsewhere, where SNR and NorthStar both bid for the license, but their opposition was AT&T, not Verizon as I (and others) thought at the time.

Of course, Ergen’s discount is going to raise massive protests from Verizon and AT&T and its interesting to note that the FCC blog post also stated that “Our team in the Wireless Bureau will thoroughly review and scrutinize each application to assure that granting each license is in the public interest and, where applicable, that each applicant has complied with the Commission’s bidding credit rules.”

Even if Ergen is successful in retaining his discount (and if he doesn’t then the whole auction may fall apart) then this result (as I predicted back in November) may lead Sprint to ally with Verizon and AT&T to isolate DISH and make sure no-one needs to lease Charlie’s spectrum. After all, we’ve already seen Sprint’s CEO indicate he is looking to sell off some of the 2.5GHz spectrum.

Recently we’ve also see Ergen demanding LightSquared pay him off in cash, in exchange for agreeing to the bankruptcy plan, and if he is going to spend $10B or more for AWS-3 spectrum, then that cash may be needed to fund the DEs.

UPDATE (1/30): DISH also won most of the unpaired uplink spectrum in the AWS-3 auction, so it may not need LightSquared’s spectrum (which in the near term most likely consists of unpaired uplinks) in any case.

Will Charlie’s all-in bet pay off? What will be the next piece of his strategy to monetize the spectrum? DISH won’t be able to give any details until after the downpayment deadline (10 business days after the results are announced). But we will have plenty of time to speculate, and tomorrow should be a very interesting day.