Today’s the day, the beginning of the Incentive Spectrum auction that will auction off 600MHz spectrum to the wireless carriers (and a few other companies that are involved). The FCC has been working with TV broadcasters to clear this spectrum for the carriers to buy and then use for their networks. This is one of the biggest spectrum auctions in quite some time, for the simple fact that it’s the last auction for low-band spectrum for about another decade. Low-band spectrum or sub-1GHz spectrum is very important for carriers as it allows them to cover more area with less towers. Lower spectrum can cover more area but has less bandwidth, while higher spectrum, like Sprint’s 2.5GHz spectrum covers less area but has a lot more bandwidth.
T-Mobile has been a big voice leading up to the Incentive Auction, as they have been urging the FCC to change up the rules a bit for this auction, to make it more fair for those smaller carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile. However, that has also opened the doors for cable operators like Dish Network and Comcast to come in and bid on the spectrum. Comcast already has some spectrum, but they have leased it to Verizon. Meanwhile Dish Network has a pretty good amount of spectrum, which they are doing absolutely nothing with right now.
While the auction technically starts today, it won’t really start for the carriers until around June. First up is a “reverse auction”. This means that TV broadcasters have until midnight tonight to decide on if they want to put their airwaves up for auction or not. Afterwards, the FCC will be spending a few weeks reconfiguring these airwaves that will be auctioned off, and then setting “a clearing target”. This would reveal the amount of spectrum they think can be freed up. All of this is based on the amount of spectrum that broadcasters are willing to part with.
Then comes the “forward auction”. This is where the FCC will strike the best deals they can to secure broadcasters’ spectrum. Right now, it appears that T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon will all be participating in the “forward auction”. The auction has been slated to bring in about $25 to 80 billion altogether. However we won’t know the official amount until later this year when the auction is actually complete. It’ll also likely be another year or so before the carriers can actually use the spectrum they’ve picked up, and even longer before they can roll it out. So while the spectrum starts today, don’t expect to see 600MHz support from any of them for at least a few years. On top of that, the FCC says it will take them about 39 months to repack this spectrum for mobile use, from TV use. So we could be looking at as long as five years before 600MHz support is available on any carrier network.