The art of the deal…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 5:40 am by timfarrar

Before yesterday’s Axios article suggesting that President Trump’s National Security Council has set its sights on using the 3.7-4.2GHz satellite C-band downlink spectrum for a national 5G network, it was clear that analysts were underestimating the importance of this spectrum band for the US wireless industry. For example, Morgan Stanley’s January 17 downgrade of DISH Network identified Verizon as the “only suitor” for DISH’s spectrum but only suggested the CBRS auction as an alternative option for Verizon to acquire more spectrum.

It seems few people have read the reply comments filed by wireless operators in the FCC’s mid-band spectrum proceeding last November, where Verizon suggested there should be a a near term NPRM with market-based clearance mechanisms, rather than FCC-run auctions for this band. In contrast, AT&T asked for “substantial record development, including additional analysis and modeling” before the FCC moves forward with an NPRM, and T-Mobile said the FCC should reject Intelsat’s proposal and instead take control of the auction process, with a defined post-auction band plan and payments to incumbents from the auction proceeds, part of which would fund the clearance of existing users.

A logical conclusion is that Verizon believes it could be the sole player to acquire spectrum rights in this band (to supplement its 5G mmWave buildout plans) via a deal with Intelsat, while AT&T has relatively little interest due to its focus on the 700MHz FirstNet buildout and securing additional mmWave spectrum allocations, and T-Mobile is trying to ensure that Verizon is unable to monopolize this spectrum band by asking for a more open auction process.

One important consideration is that the power restrictions that will apply to the CBRS band to permit spectrum sharing may not be necessary above 3.7GHz and therefore with MIMO this band could be deployed for urban coverage on approximately the same cell grid used for PCS and AWS spectrum, as Qualcomm and Nokia have indicated, and as is planned in Europe, where the 3.4-3.8GHz band is being auctioned.

Since the reply comments were filed, Intelsat has continued to push hard for a near-term NPRM and given the difficulties that the FCC would encounter in defining how a “market-based” transaction should occur, it is entirely plausible that an exclusive spectrum deal between Intelsat and Verizon could be struck shortly after a draft NPRM was issued. By selling say 100MHz of spectrum to Verizon, Intelsat would establish a benchmark valuation for its C-band spectrum assets, while being able to maintain existing video distribution services within the remaining 400MHz of spectrum. Of course, Verizon would also presumably be happy to see Charlie Ergen left at the altar without his “only suitor”.

The Trump NSC memo only serves to increase the pressure to execute such a transaction, and pre-empt any (still remote) possibility of the spectrum being “nationalized”. Verizon could certainly promise to build a 5G network using this spectrum within 3 years, without government intervention, and gain an even more concrete lead in 5G network superiority. Meanwhile Intelsat (and other satellite operators including SES) could keep providing their existing C-band video distribution services and receive billions in cash plus additional billions in attributed spectrum value for the remaining 400MHz of spectrum, and the FCC could achieve a pioneering market-based transfer of spectrum to higher value uses. What’s not to like about that deal (unless you are AT&T, T-Mobile or DISH)?


Tilting the playing field…

Posted in AT&T, Operators, Regulatory, Services, Spectrum, Verizon at 11:08 am by timfarrar

Over the last week its been frustrating to see what should be a technical debate about the best way to regulate access networks deteriorate into ludicrous hyperbole about how “repealing net neutrality would end the internet as we know it” when in reality it “isn’t the end of the world“.

At its core this is really a debate about whether you can trust businesses in general and ISPs in particular, with Republicans declaring that a free market is the best solution to promote investment, whereas Democrats are saying that regulation is needed due to the lack of competition in access networks. Thus one side says “Net neutrality rules are unnecessary because ISPs will do the right thing” whereas the other side says its “the very laziest of anti-net neutrality tropes [to say] that the wolf hasn’t eaten the sheep yet so let’s trust the wolf.” And of course, once politics are involved, the current climate means that everything gets blown out of proportion.

In reality the right answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, which is what sensible commentators like Ben Thompson and Dean Bubley are trying to feel their way towards. Ben’s commentary in particular has come under criticism because he “assumes public intervention is costly and corrupt, that telecoms are accurate, and that there’s no role for morality” despite there being plenty of evidence of previous regulatory failures in Tom Hazlett’s recent book “The Political Spectrum”. However, its not unreasonable to think that trying a light touch approach backed up by antitrust enforcement is a good idea and that “framing these trade-offs as moral choices” is unhelpful.

Perhaps it is true that the best answer would have been to push harder on unbundling local loops to facilitate service-based competition on telco networks, just as in Europe, but that ship sailed 15 years ago when the CLECs went bankrupt. Instead, going all the way back to the 1996 Telecom Act, the US has focused on infrastructure-based competition between cable and telcos, which unsurprisingly hasn’t produced the same level of competition, due to the cost of maintaining multiple access networks.

Maybe this is a failed model and we now have to be content with regulating the current oligopoly of cable and telcos to ensure they don’t behave badly (and we can certainly debate exactly how much regulation is needed to achieve that). But perhaps wireless broadband will provide some level of new competition for fixed providers. I dismissed that possibility 6 years ago, but now I’m increasingly convinced that the enormous efficiency gains coming from MIMO will provide wireless operators with more capacity than they know what to do with, enabling them to deliver wireless broadband in the home to at least some (meaningful) number of consumers.

Whether that’s ultimately 10% or 30% of households very much depends on how much capital is available to invest in those networks. And how good the performance will be remains to be seen – after all the 13% of adults who are smartphone only internet users are mostly doing it for cost reasons and “often encounter difficulties like accessing and reading content, as well as trouble submitting files and documents.”

But that’s not my primary focus here. One point made by net neutrality proponents such as Barbara van Schewick is that for the last 20 years, the regulation of telecom networks has been backed by both Republican and Democrat administrations and so the current proposal is a radical change in precedent. You can argue with the truth of that prediction, depending on whether you think the FTC will actively enforce antitrust law to deal with future net neutrality problems, but what is interesting to me is that many of the actions cited by van Schewick were taken to support content providers like Netflix or Google when those companies had a lot less power than they do today.

Some of those actions had significant costs, such as (Republican FCC chairman) Kevin Martin’s decision to attach “lifetime net neutrality conditions to parts of the 4G spectrum that [the FCC] auctioned off in 2008″. That action was taken at the behest of Google, but the result was that Verizon acquired 22MHz of upper C-block spectrum for only $0.76/MHzPOP, a 41% discount to the average price in the auction, and a more than 70% discount to the price paid (mainly by AT&T) for the lower B-block. Thus Google’s “net neutrality” lobbying effort potentially cost the government somewhere between $5B and $10B in lost auction proceeds, without having any substantial impact on the wireless services you receive today (are you more likely to choose Verizon because some of its spectrum comes with “open access” conditions?).

Of course net neutrality has not been the only area where Silicon Valley companies have sought or obtained favorable regulatory treatment compared to telcos and cable companies. The last Commission’s set top box proceeding and proposed privacy regulations were both seen as favoring Google, Amazon and Netflix over Verizon and Comcast. The current Commission is tilting the playing field back towards access providers by abandoning these efforts and dismantling the net neutrality rules, and opponents argue that it is going too far, because of the lack of competition in access provision and because they don’t trust the wolves at Comcast, Verizon and AT&T.

But if its now a debate about whether you can trust businesses in general to behave reasonably, can you trust Silicon Valley companies any more than ISPs? Do Google and Netflix need regulatory advantages over ISPs now they are so powerful? Are ISPs any more of a monopoly than Google or Facebook or Twitter, and which of them are more likely to be disrupted in the future? Those are the questions that are now being raised, most explicitly in Chairman Pai’s speech yesterday, where he noted that:

“despite all the talk about the fear that broadband providers could decide what Internet content consumers can see, recent experience shows that so-called edge providers are in fact deciding what content they see. These providers routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like

Nonetheless, these companies want to place much tougher regulations on broadband providers than they are willing to have placed upon themselves. So let’s be clear. They might cloak their advocacy in the public interest, but the real interest of these Internet giants is in using the regulatory process to cement their dominance in the Internet economy.
And here’s the thing: I don’t blame them for trying. But the government shouldn’t aid and abet this effort. We have no business picking winners and losers in the marketplace. A level playing field, not regulatory arbitrage, is what best serves consumers and competition.”

In fact a more directly relevant example than speech censorship comes from Netflix itself, which proclaims its support for “strong Net Neutrality” (and is seen as one of the key beneficiaries) but back in September was trying to muscle inflight connectivity providers into zero rating Netflix video content if they wanted access to Netflix’s improved codecs to minimize bandwidth consumption onboard. Ironically enough, inflight connectivity is seen by net neutrality supporters as a good example of what non-neutral networks might look like.

I’ve been warning for a while that Silicon Valley is not well positioned to succeed in building telecom networks (or cars) and so would not be favored under this infrastructure-focused administration. And that’s far from the only cause of a backlash. But now I think there’s good reason for “the entire tech industry [to be] flipping its shit” because tech companies are the most likely losers even if we don’t end up in all-out partisan warfare, but simply remove the regulatory favoritism that Silicon Valley has benefitted from for the last 20 years.


Bluff and double bluff…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 7:18 pm by timfarrar

The FCC incentive auction results were published earlier today, and to everyone’s surprise, DISH ended up spending $6.2B to acquire a near national 10x10MHz footprint. T-Mobile spent $8.0B (which was only slightly above the predicted figure), but Verizon didn’t bid, and AT&T ended up with even less spectrum than predicted, spending only $900M. Comcast spent $1.7B, while two hedge fund-backed spectrum speculators, Bluewater and Channel 51, spent $568M and $860M respectively (after each receiving a $150M discount for being “small” businesses).

Some parts of this outcome (notably T-Mobile’s substantial purchases and AT&T’s bluff in bidding for a large amount of spectrum before dropping bids) are similar to my predictions, but I had expected Comcast rather than DISH to be the other large bidder. My assessment that DISH might have been pushed out of the bidding in Stage 1 was based on an assessment that DISH would initially focus on major cities to force up the price for others (as happened in AWS-3), but instead DISH played the role of a more regular bidder (presumably as a double-bluff to hide its intentions), and spread its bids fairly uniformly across a large number of licenses. In fact Comcast started with this drastically more concentrated strategy and then tried to drop bids, while AT&T also began to drop most of its bids before the end of Stage 1, with both Comcast and AT&T responsible for the dramatic falls in overall bidding eligibility from Round 24 onwards.

What did go as I predicted was that AT&T largely dictated the pace of the auction, reaching a maximum commitment of $7.4B in Stage 1 Round 21, before dropping eligibility rapidly in the latter part of Stage 1 and attempting to exit from all of its bids in Stage 2 and beyond. AT&T was only prevented from achieving this goal because Comcast apparently also got cold feet about being stranded after reaching a maximum commitment of $5.9B in Stage 1 Round 22 (based largely on concentrated bids within the largest PEAs in addition to its more modest bids for a single 5x5MHz block elsewhere).

It is unclear exactly what Comcast’s objective was, but Comcast may have been making these concentrated bids to push up the overall price to reach the reserve (which is measured on average across the top PEAs) in areas which it didn’t want, so that the price in areas it did want would be lower. However, Comcast didn’t want to be stranded and so when AT&T started dropping bids, I assume Comcast panicked and decided that it also needed to get out of those concentrated bids.

So in summary, despite its high exposure during Stage 1, I doubt Comcast really wanted to spend $6B+ on spectrum – instead it just wanted to get a limited 5x5MHz block of spectrum within its cable footprint at the lowest possible cost. AT&T apparently wanted to use its financial resources to game the auction and strand others (Verizon or DISH) with spectrum that they might struggle to put to use. T-Mobile was trying to get at least 10x10MHz of spectrum on a national basis, and succeeded, albeit with no other wireless operators now present to help ensure a quick transition of broadcasters out of the band. DISH also seems to have set out from the beginning to buy a national 10x10MHz block, with Ergen going all in on spectrum, presumably because he believed this spectrum would be cheap and could provide leverage for a subsequent deal. And finally, several speculators decided to acquire a more limited set of licenses that they hoped they could sell on to AT&T or Verizon at a later date, which now looks like a rather unwise bet.

Of course the most important, and puzzling, question is why did DISH set out to buy another 20MHz of spectrum when it already has a huge amount of spectrum that it has not yet put to use (and DISH’s current plan for that spectrum is a low cost IOT network to minimize the cost of meeting its March 2020 buildout deadline)? It seems Ergen concluded that this spectrum would either sell for a low price because of the sheer amount of spectrum available or (if AT&T and Verizon both turned up and wanted 20MHz+ of spectrum) then he could push up the price and make life difficult for T-Mobile just as in the AWS-3 auction. It turned out to be the former, but Ergen may not have expected AT&T to drop its bids at the end of Stage 1, which has resulted in both AT&T and Verizon likely having no long term interest in acquiring spectrum in this band (and potentially even an opportunity to push out the time period over which this spectrum is put to widespread use).

That leaves DISH with less leverage rather than more, because now DISH has spent so much on spectrum it can’t credibly play the role of disruptor in upcoming industry consolidation (either by building or buying) and instead Ergen has to wait for operators to come to him to buy or lease his spectrum. DISH may now want to shift into the role of neutral lessor of spectrum to all comers, but it seems unlikely that AT&T and Verizon will be prepared to enable that, while T-Mobile and Sprint now both have plenty of their own spectrum to deploy.

Instead it seems probable that Ergen might end up attempting to find other potential partners outside the wireless industry, but with cable companies are unlikely to deploy a network from scratch, he may have to return to Silicon Valley. However, with Google already having said no to a deal with DISH, the list of possibilities there is also pretty short. So yet again, we may end up with DISH on the sidelines, overshadowing, but ultimately not having much influence on the wireless dealmaking to come, whether that is a merger between a cable company and a wireless operator, or an attempt to get approval for a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint.


Last man standing…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 10:29 pm by timfarrar

Back in December, I suggested that AT&T could end up being the winner of the FCC’s incentive auction, by “dropping the licenses it held at the end of Stage 1 until broadcasters are forced to accept a tiny fraction of their originally expected receipts, leave T-Mobile (plus a bunch of spectrum speculators in various DEs) holding most of the spectrum…and screw DISH by setting a new national benchmark of ~$0.90/MHzPOP for low band spectrum.”

Broadcasters were certainly forced to accept a tiny fraction of their originally expected receipts, when the reverse auction ended Stage 4 with a total clearing cost of only $12B, and the auction has concluded with a national average price of just over $0.90/MHzPOP. However, by the beginning of this month, the clues to the incentive auction outcome derived from the splitting of reserved and unreserved licenses also suggested that T-Mobile might not have bid as aggressively as expected on licenses such as Los Angeles and San Diego, because only 1 license in these areas was classified as reserved.

Despite this, AT&T’s recently filed 10-K confirms that:

“In February 2017, aggregate bids exceeded the level required to clear Auction 1000. This auction, including the assignment phase, is expected to conclude in the first half of 2017. Our commitment to purchase 600 MHz spectrum licenses for which we submitted bids is expected to be more than satisfied by the deposits made to the FCC in the third quarter of 2016.”

The deposits made by AT&T totaled $2.4B, and commitments below this level indicate that AT&T has purchased no more than 5x5MHz on average across the US. That also suggests that AT&T very likely was responsible for dropping bids in Stages 2, 3 and 4, as I guessed back in December. But if both AT&T and T-Mobile did not bid as aggressively as expected in the auction, Verizon did not put down any material deposit and Sprint did not show up at all, that certainly raises the question of who is left standing as a winning bidder for over $19B of spectrum?

T-Mobile could well have bid somewhat more aggressively outside the southwestern US, and therefore may still be holding $5B-$8B of bids in total. It was also clear from the auction results that one or more designated entities are holding just over $2B of spectrum. But Comcast must certainly have winning bids for upwards of $5B, likely in the form of a national 10x10MHz license (and perhaps more in some markets), and it is even conceivable that DISH is still holding some licenses, despite the bidding patterns suggesting that DISH most likely dropped out in Stage 1.

But taken as a whole, the limited participation by AT&T and the lack of interest shown by Verizon could well have serious implications for the prospects of a rapid standardization and transition in this band. As I noted in December, AT&T could strand T-Mobile, Comcast and the various spectrum speculators by supporting the broadcasters in their efforts to delay the transition and ensuring that this spectrum remains non-standard because AT&T and Verizon won’t bother supporting the band any time soon.

Moreover, this outcome once again raises the question of how much AT&T and Verizon really need spectrum in the near term, or if they can instead make do with their current holdings until small cell networks based on 3.5GHz, 5GHz LTE-U and eventually mmWave spectrum create a new era of spectrum abundance and support vast increases in network capacity. Thus its somewhat ironic to see analysts speculating that Verizon is now more likely to buy DISH.

In fact, Charlie Ergen seemed to be hinting on DISH’s Q4 results call that Verizon and AT&T are no longer the most plausible partner when he stated that “I’m sure there will be discussions among any number of parties that are in the wireless business today and people who maybe are not in the wireless business today. And, I would imagine that – we’re not the biggest company, we’re not going to drive that process, but obviously, many of the assets that we hold could be involved in that mix.” However, it remains to be seen if any Silicon Valley companies are still interested in getting into the wireless business (most plausibly via the renewal of DISH’s previously mooted tie-up with Google and T-Mobile) or if something even more surprising like a reconciliation with Sprint and Softbank could be a possibility.


The price is right…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 11:42 am by timfarrar

As the FCC’s incentive auction draws to a close, some further clues emerged about the bidding when the FCC split licenses between reserved and unreserved spectrum. What stood out was that in Los Angeles, San Diego and another 10 smaller licenses (incidentally all located in the southwestern US), only 1 license is classified as reserved. That means there is only 1 bidder that has designated itself as reserve-eligible when bidding for these licenses and that bidder only wants a single 5x5MHz block of spectrum. In contrast, in LA there are five 5x5MHz blocks going to non-reserved bidders (and 1 block spare).

This leads me to believe that T-Mobile may not be holding quite as much spectrum as anticipated, at least in that part of the country, while some potentially reserve-eligible bidders (i.e. entities other than Verizon and AT&T) have not designated themselves as reserve-eligible. That election can be made on a PEA-by-PEA basis, but it would be very odd for a major bidder like Comcast not to designate itself as reserve-eligible. On the other hand, speculators whose intention is to sell their spectrum to Verizon or AT&T, very likely would not want to be reserve-eligible, since that could cause additional problems in a future sale transaction.

A plausible conclusion is that if T-Mobile’s bidding is more constrained, then Comcast may be bidding more aggressively than expected, but is primarily focused on areas where it already has cable infrastructure (i.e. not Los Angeles, San Diego, etc.), and T-Mobile, AT&T and Comcast may all end up with an average of roughly 10x10MHz of spectrum on a near-national basis. We already know that one or more speculators are bidding aggressively, due to the gap between gross and net bids (note that the FCC reports this gap without regard to the $150M cap on DE discounts so it could be a single aggressive player with $2B+ in exposure) and thus the balance of the 70MHz of spectrum being sold would then be held by other players (but with these holdings likely skewed towards more saleable larger markets, including Los Angeles).

Its interesting to note that speculation is now revving up about the transactions to come after the auction is complete, with most attention focused on whether Verizon is serious about a bid for Charter, or if this is a head fake to bring DISH to the table for a spectrum-focused deal, after Verizon apparently sat out the incentive auction. Incidentally, Verizon’s expressed interest in Charter would also tend to support the notion that Verizon believes Comcast may want to play a bigger role in the wireless market, by acquiring a significant amount of spectrum in the incentive auction and perhaps even buying a wireless operator at a later date.

However, when you look at Sprint’s recent spectrum sale-leaseback deal, which was widely highlighted for the extraordinarily high valuation that it put on the 2.5GHz spectrum band, Verizon’s need for a near term spectrum transaction is far from compelling. I’m told that the appraisal analysis estimated the cost of new cellsites that Verizon would need to build with and without additional 2.5GHz spectrum, but that either way, there is no need for Verizon to engage in an effort to add substantial numbers of macrocells until 2020 or beyond, given its current spectrum holdings and the efficiency benefits accruing from the latest LTE technology. And if mmWave spectrum and massive MIMO are successful, then Verizon’s need for spectrum declines considerably.

So it seems there is little reason for Verizon to cave now, and pay Ergen’s (presumably high) asking price, when it does not need to start building until after the March 2020 buildout deadline for DISH’s AWS-4 licenses. It would not be a surprise if Verizon were willing to pay the same price as is achieved in the incentive auction (i.e. less than $1/MHzPOP), but the question is whether Ergen will be prepared to accept that.

Of course, DISH bulls suggest that the FCC will be happy to simply extend this deadline indefinitely, even if DISH makes little or no effort to offer a commercial service before 2020. The most important data point on that issue will come in early March 2017, when DISH passes its initial 4 year buildout deadline without making any effort to build out a network. Will the FCC take this opportunity to highlight the need for a large scale buildout that DISH promised in 2012 and the FCC noted in its AWS-4 order? Certainly that would appear to be good politics at this point in time.

“…we observe that the incumbent 2 GHz MSS licensees generally support our seven year end-of-term build-out benchmark and have committed to “aggressively build-out a broadband network” if they receives terrestrial authority to operate in the AWS-4 band. We expect this commitment to be met and, to ensure that it is, adopt performance requirements and associated penalties for failure to build-out, specifically designed to result in the spectrum being put to use for the benefit of the public interest.”

“In the event a licensee fails to meet the AWS-4 Final Build-out Requirement in any EA, we adopt the proposal in the AWS-4 NPRM that the licensee’s terrestrial authority for each such area shall terminate automatically without Commission action…We believe these penalties are necessary to ensure that licensees utilize the spectrum in the public interest. As explained above, the Nation needs additional spectrum supply. Failure by licensees to meet the build-out requirements would not address this need.”


What’s Charlie’s game now?

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 3:44 pm by timfarrar

Back in November 2014, I published my analysis of what was happening in the AWS-3 spectrum auction to scorn from other analysts, who apparently couldn’t believe that Charlie Ergen would bid through multiple entities to push up the price of paired spectrum. Now we’re seeing relatively little speculation about who is doing what in the incentive auction (other than an apparently mystifying consensus that it will take until at least the end of September to complete Stage 1), so I thought it would be useful to give my views about what is happening.

The most important factor to observe in analyzing the auction is that overall demand relative to the amount of spectrum available (calculated as first round bidding units placed divided by total available supply measured in bidding units) has been considerably lower than in previous large auctions (AWS-1, 700MHz) and far short of the aggressive bidding seen in the AWS-3 auction.

That’s attributable partly to the absence of Social Capital, but much more to the 100MHz of spectrum on offer, compared to the likelihood that of the five remaining potential national bidders (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, DISH and Comcast), none of them are likely to need more than about 30MHz on a national basis.

What’s become clear so far over the course of the auction is that most license areas (Partial Economic Areas) are not attracting much excess demand, apart from the top PEAs (namely New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) in the first few rounds. I said before the auction that DISH’s best strategy would probably be to bid for a large amount of spectrum in a handful of top markets, in order to drive up the price, and that appears to be exactly what happened.

However, it now appears we are very close to reaching the end of Stage 1, after excess eligibility dropped dramatically (by ~44% in terms of bidding units) in Round 24. In fact a bidder dropped 2 blocks in New York and 3 blocks in Los Angeles, without moving this eligibility elsewhere, somewhat similar to what happened on Friday, when one or more bidders dropped 5 blocks in Chicago, 3 blocks in New York and 1 block in Los Angeles during Round 20.

However, a key difference is that a significant fraction of the bidding eligibility that moved out of NY/LA/Chicago during Round 20, ended up being reallocated to other second and third tier markets, whereas in Round 24, total eligibility dropped by more than the reduction in eligibility in New York and Los Angeles. It is natural that a bidder such as T-Mobile (or Comcast) would want licenses elsewhere in the country if the top markets became too expensive, whereas if DISH’s objective is simply to push up the price, then DISH wouldn’t necessarily want to bid elsewhere and end up owning second and third tier markets.

This suggests that DISH has been reducing its exposure in the top three markets, in order to prevent itself from becoming stranded with too much exposure there. My guess is that DISH exited completely from Chicago in Round 20 and is now reducing exposure in New York and Los Angeles after bidding initially for a full complement of licenses there (i.e. 10 blocks in New York and Chicago and 5 blocks in Los Angeles).

If DISH is now down to about 8 blocks in New York and only 2 blocks in Los Angeles, then its maximum current exposure (if all other bidders dropped out) would be $4.52B, keeping DISH’s exposure under what is probably a roughly $5B budget. Of course DISH could potentially drop out of Los Angeles completely and let others fight it out (for the limited allocation of 5 blocks), if its objective is simply to maximize the end price, but this may not be possible in New York, because there are 10 license blocks available, which could give Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Comcast enough to share between them.

Regardless, with the price increasing by 10% in each round, the price per MHzPOP in New York and Los Angeles would exceed that in the AWS-3 auction before the end of this week, implying that a resolution has to be reached very soon. If DISH is the one to exit, then it looks like Ergen will not be reallocating eligibility elsewhere, and DISH’s current eligibility (256,000 bidding units if it is bidding on 8 blocks in New York and 2 in Los Angeles) is likely higher than the excess eligibility total of all the remaining bidders combined (~182,000 bidding units at the end of Round 24 if all the available licenses were sold). This implies that a rapid end to Stage 1 of the auction is now likely, perhaps even this week and almost certainly before the end of next week, with total proceeds in the region of $30B.

Of course we will then need to go back to the next round of the reverse auction, but it looks plausible that convergence may be achieved at roughly $35B-$40B, potentially with as much as 80-90MHz sold (i.e. an average price of ~$1.50/MHzPOP). If DISH is forced out in Stage 1, then prices in key markets would probably not go much higher in future rounds of the forward auction, so the main question will be how quickly the reverse auction payments decline and whether this takes 1, 2 or 3 more rounds.

Also, based on the bidding patterns to date, it seems likely that Comcast may well emerge from the auction with a significant national footprint of roughly 20MHz of spectrum, potentially spending $7B-$10B. In addition, unless the forward auction drops to only 70MHz being sold, all four national bidders could largely achieve their goals, spending fairly similar amounts except in New York and Los Angeles, where one or two of these players are likely to miss out. In those circumstances, it will be interesting to see who would feel the need to pay Ergen’s asking price of at least $1.50/MHzPOP (and quite possibly a lot more) for his AWS-3 and AWS-4 spectrum licenses.

UPDATE (8/30): Bidding levels in New York and Los Angeles dropped dramatically in Round 25 (to 10 and 8 blocks respectively), with total bidding units placed (2.096M) now below the supply of licenses (2.177M) in Stage 1. This very likely means that DISH has given up and Stage 1 will close this week at an even lower price of ~$25B, with convergence of the forward and reverse auction values probably not achieved until the $30B-$35B range. This lower level of bidding activity increases the probability that 4 stages will now be required, with only 70MHz being sold in the forward auction at the end of the day.


The analysts have a problem…

Posted in AT&T, Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Verizon at 8:32 am by timfarrar

I woke up this morning to read New Street Research’s latest 3Q2015 Wireless Trends Review, subtitled “Competition Gets Ugly: The Big Guys Have A Problem” and while I agree that competitive pressures in the US wireless market are getting ugly, I’m afraid it is the analysts rather the “Big Guys” that have a problem. In particular, New Street’s “network capacity framework” that suggests Verizon “have half the capacity they will need by 2020 to maintain current network quality” is based on a completely flawed premise, just like most other pronouncements of an imminent spectrum crisis.

This network capacity framework calculates the number of “MHz-sites” that Verizon has for LTE in the top 25 markets and assumes that data demand will grow at 30% from 2015 to 2020 (reaching 10GB/LTE sub per month by then). Ignoring the fact that New St doesn’t know its Petabytes (1 million Gbytes) from its Exabytes (1 billion Gbytes), Verizon’s “aggregate LTE data demand” is projected to increase five fold between 2015 and 2020, while Verizon is expected to increase its deployed LTE spectrum from 68 to 138MHz and its number of LTE macrosites in these markets from 21K to 27.2K over the period, which supposedly will result in 2.5 times growth in network capacity. Thus New St concludes that Verizon will have only half the capacity needed to meet demand, without buying more spectrum from DISH.

This thesis is even more flawed than the Brattle Group study for CTIA back in June, because it completely fails to consider the potential for improvements in network efficiency over the period as LTE-Advanced technologies are deployed. Even Brattle Group acknowledges that “LTE+” will carry over 70% more bps per Hz than 4G LTE, based on a move from 2×2 MIMO to 4×4 MIMO, and the original source for these estimates (Rysavy Research’s August 2014 paper on “Beyond LTE: Enabling the Mobile Broadband Explosion“) acknowledges that many additional improvements are feasible.

Correcting for this error alone, and assuming capacity constrained locations are upgraded to LTE-Advanced by 2020, New Street’s supposed capacity shortfall is reduced from 50% to 14%, and so the number of additional macro sites that Verizon would need to build is reduced from 26.7K to only 4.5K (which based on the FCC’s October 2010 estimate of $550K per cellsite would cost only $2.5B in incremental capex). That hardly seems to justify Verizon spending tens of billions of dollars to buy DISH’s spectrum.

New Street also ignore other sources of incremental capacity (such as LTE-U) and reject small cells as infeasible because they have supposedly only 1/3 the capacity of macro sites (Rysavy in fact points out in Figure 68 of his report that through careful placement to meet hotspot demand, four picocells per macrocell could produce roughly a 10x increase in capacity).

Its hardly surprising that New Street conclude Verizon’s behavior is “perplexing” and suggest that rather than “discounting to hang onto subs” Verizon “should be taking up price to shed subs faster in congested markets to preserve superior network performance for their most valuable subs.” But perhaps Verizon do actually understand network engineering and the potential for network capacity enhancements better than analysts with a simplistic, erroneous spreadsheet model?

In these circumstances Verizon would also feel happy to say no to Ergen’s blackmail and refuse to pay more than their previous offer for DISH’s spectrum (which I guess is around $1/MHzPOP). In fact, it would seem likely that Verizon don’t want a deal at any price ahead of the incentive auction, if that would enable Ergen to bid up the price of spectrum once again. On the other hand, Ergen is undoubtedly keen to find a partner to endorse the value of his spectrum holdings and force Verizon back to the table. As part of that effort, I’m told he has been visiting Google again recently, just as he did back in 2012 when he was trying to pressure AT&T to do a spectrum deal.

One possibility for such a partnership would be to reinvigorate DISH’s rooftop small cell deployment plan, and meet Ergen’s AWS-4 buildout requirements, using the AWS-4 uplinks (2000-2020MHz) as downlinks in conjunction with his 1695-1710MHz uplink spectrum. Remember that Google has backed similar efforts in the past, when it funded Clearwire (rather than LightSquared) in 2008, in order to get a competitive 4G network built out quickly, and push Verizon and AT&T to do the same. However, Ergen has little more than a month left to get a deal done before the auction restrictions kick in, so time is not on his side.


Sorry Charlie…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Operators, Spectrum, T-Mobile, Verizon at 4:25 pm by timfarrar

Two people have now told me that with 99% certainty, the leak about the DISH/T-Mobile talks came from T-Mobile itself, not from DISH, based on the authorship of the WSJ report. Although it might be tempting to conclude that T-Mobile is trying to prompt a cable operator to consider an alternative bid, Charter has indicated that it will focus on TWC’s MVNO agreement with Verizon to provide wireless services if its TWC bid is successful and Comcast could presumably do likewise if desired.

Moreover, it seems this was not some sort of “official” leak, but instead simply reflects general conversations which got blown out of proportion, because Bloomberg has reported that the talks, which have been going on since last summer, have not advanced significantly in recent weeks.

That still leaves the perplexing analyst event that DISH held on Tuesday, and there’s been no convincing explanation of why that event was scheduled at short notice. Nevertheless, there’s now a frenzy of speculation leaving some convinced about the “inevitability” of a merger. What none of the reports deal with at all is how T-Mobile would actually make use of DISH’s spectrum without AWS-3/4 interoperability, and even then half of DISH’s spectrum in PCS H-block and 2000-2020MHz would still have no ecosystem available.

Instead analysts simply assume that interoperability doesn’t even need to be considered, and that the FCC “buildout requirements of its spectrum are so far in the future it’s not even worth starting the discussion about the weak enforceability of those deadlines.”

Of course a merger makes all the sense in the world if you assume DISH’s spectrum is just as usable as any other spectrum and that the FCC won’t enforce its buildout deadlines (in March 2020) so DISH has all the time in the world to strike a deal at a full price. Unfortunately that simply isn’t the case, and both Verizon and AT&T know that only too well.


Heads we win, tails you lose…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Verizon at 12:06 pm by timfarrar

Its been interesting to note that AT&T and Verizon did not file any petitions to deny the AWS-3 license applications of DISH’s two Designated Entities, NorthStar and SNR, despite Verizon and AT&T both having earlier been vocal in denigrating DISH’s bidding strategy in their comments in the FCC’s bidding procedures docket 14-170.

Instead the opposition was left to a couple of small bidders plus a collection of ‘public interest’ organizations, who followed the path set out by Verizon, and alleged violations of antitrust laws by DISH and its DEs. DISH’s response argued that there was no antitrust violation and that the joint bidding arrangements (including realtime coordination of bids during each round, which most people including myself thought was not allowed) were fully disclosed.

While the eventual FCC decision on DISH’s $3.3B discount remains uncertain (and according to FCC Chairman Wheeler would not in any case involve denial of the licenses or reauctioning of the spectrum), it is far from a slam dunk (as some argued originally) that DISH will keep the discount. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Verizon and AT&T could even be better off if DISH kept the DE discount, and that might provide one reason why they held back from challenging DISH’s licenses directly.

Of course DISH would lose $3.3B if the DE discount was rejected, but in that case, DISH would acquire NorthStar and SNR under the terms of its agreements with the DEs, and would be free to consolidate and restructure its AWS-3 and AWS-4 spectrum holdings. After that, in my view, the most likely end game would be to spin-off all of DISH’s spectrum (AWS-3, AWS-4, 700MHz E-block, PCS H-block) into a holding company, which could lease individual licenses to any wireless operator, and raise perhaps $20B-$30B of debt at the spinco level, flowing that cash back up to DISH (and perhaps allowing Ergen to take some chips off the table).

Any repricing of the AWS-3 spectrum would presumably increase Ergen’s asking price for his leases, meaning that Verizon and AT&T might ultimately be the ones to suffer from the removal of the discount. In fact Verizon might even decide it had to pay up and pre-empt the spinoff because of the prospect that this arrangement would make more spectrum available in key markets for both T-Mobile and Sprint.

However, in order to execute these spinoff plans and enter into meaningful leases of AWS-4 spectrum, it is critical that DISH secures interoperability for its AWS-4 downlinks (2180-2200MHz) with the AWS-3 blocks. T-Mobile and Sprint know all too well that building out networks in bands without an ecosystem (such as T-Mobile’s deployment of WCDMA/HSPA in the AWS-1 band, which was ultimately abandoned, and Sprint’s PCS G-block LTE network) makes it much more difficult and expensive to secure handsets (hence there was no WCDMA iPhone operating in AWS-1 and Sprint had to guarantee billions of dollars of purchases to secure a G-block iPhone). As a result, they are unlikely to want to get into bed with DISH and make use of AWS-4 unless and until there is some guarantee of a handset ecosystem.

While DISH can pursue a band class designation for AWS-4 supplementary downlinks through 3GPP, we only need to look at the story of Band Classes 12 and 17 (in the lower 700MHz band) to see that a band class designation on its own, without any regulatory mandate for interoperability, is insufficient to ensure a handset ecosystem is created. And at the end of the day, the FCC was forced to intervene and broker a deal to ensure interoperability in the lower 700MHz band, before T-Mobile moved to buy 700MHz A block licenses for its low band coverage buildout.

Its therefore hardly surprising that AWS-3/4 interoperability was a key request of DISH in March 2014 before the auction, and fiercely opposed by Verizon and AT&T. At the time, the FCC decided not to impose a mandate, but strongly suggested that cooperative efforts should be made to ensure interoperability with AWS-4:

In the absence of technical impediments to interoperability, if the Commission determines that progress on interoperability has stalled in the standards process, future AWS-3 licensees are hereby on notice that the Commission will consider initiating a rulemaking regarding the extension of an interoperability mandate that includes AWS-4 (2180-2200 MHz) at that time. Should we undertake such a rulemaking, relevant considerations may include considerations of harmful interference, technical cost and difficulty of implementation, and the extent to which licensees are common to both the AWS-3 and AWS-4 bands.

Given the likelihood that AT&T and Verizon will engage in delaying tactics (not least due to the relatively short period in which DISH needs to start moving ahead on deployment), DISH will very probably need help from the FCC to push AWS-3/4 interoperability forward. However, if DISH is seen to have gamed the auction rules and secured an unwarranted multi-billion dollar discount, it will be far more difficult for the FCC to help out DISH on interoperability over AT&T and Verizon’s objections.

That might in fact be AT&T and Verizon’s ultimate goal: box DISH in with no possibility of a deal with T-Mobile or Sprint to put its AWS-4 spectrum to use, and wait for Charlie to cry uncle when he runs up against his AWS-4 buildout deadlines. Note that it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that the 4 year interim deadline to cover 40% of the population in each Economic Area by March 2017 will be missed, which will bring forward the final 70% coverage deadline to March 2020 (the timeline was extended to 8 years as part of the H-block deal in December 2013, but one year will be deducted if the interim deadline is not met).

Thus if DISH is unable to reach lease agreements with T-Mobile and/or Sprint for an AWS-4 buildout by the first half of 2017 at the latest (which will require interoperability to be secured in the next 18 months or so), Ergen will be under considerable pressure to moderate his price demands for a sale to Verizon or AT&T. As a result, AT&T and Verizon may win even more if DISH keeps the DE discount, than the $3.3B that DISH loses if the discount is rejected.


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.

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