They say every dog gets their day. The FCC's recently concluded 600MHz spectrum auction was a real-life example of this principle in action in the wireless industry. Smaller players, especially T-Mobile, made it clear to the powers that be and everybody else that they did not want the big dogs using this auction to get bigger, and they ended up getting their way, though not as they originally imagined. Naturally, the big dogs that they chose to point out were Verizon and AT&T, the two largest wireless carriers in the US, notably referred to by T-Mobile CEO John Leger as "The Duopoly." It should be noted that the two got a massive amount of AWS-3 spectrum in an auction that ended back in 2015, before the current one kicked off. T-Mobile and others were pushing for them to be either limited or blocked entirely from participating in the 600MHz auction by lawmakers; what happened instead was that the two were fully allowed to participate, and while AT&T just sort of went about it half-heartedly, Verizon sat it out, looking to higher-band spectrum than what was on offer for their future. AT&T's spending came in under $3 billion. The extremely valuable spectrum on offer was some of the most useful offered in a long time; it can be used for an LTE network, device to device networking, and even a quick, cheap, and easy 5G buildout with off-the-shelf equipment. Essentially, it was the best spectrum you could possibly get your hands on right now. Verizon and AT&T snagged precious little of it for themselves. The kicker is that these two wireless giants' inaction didn't just make things easier for the bit players and the underdogs – cable companies and other entities that previously had no business in wireless snatched up the spectrum they needed to make their move.
Naturally, T-Mobile snagged a huge amount of spectrum, and plan to use it to build out their LTE and upcoming 5G networks. To clarify, they were the top bidder, putting down about $8 billion. Sprint, meanwhile, chose to sit it out and fall back on their existing spectrum holdings, which are actually pretty vast, and mostly come from their now-disused iDEN and WiMax networks. It's safe to say that the four big players in the US are now on close to even ground for the upcoming 5G arms race. This, of course, means that consumers are likely to come out as the real winners. For those interested in the fifth-place player, U.S. Cellular, they put down about $372 million, which means that most of their 5G buildout is going to be on spectrum that they already own, and their auction winnings are likely going to help bolster coverage, rather than provide a base for buildout, like T-Mobile is doing. Smaller local players got in on the action, too. Google, meanwhile, was notably absent, which doesn't really bode well for Fiber, and means that Project Fi will likely remain an MVNO. That's not entirely a bad thing, since their providers, T-Mobile and Sprint, are both saying that they're planning to rock the house when the 5G race kicks off in earnest, since they have massive amounts of low-end spectrum under their belts.
The wireless industry in its current state is already going to be putting on a pretty interesting show, but things are getting even spicier with cable providers jumping in the mix. The first was Comcast, who is using a ton of their own spectrum and Wi-Fi hotspots along with an MVNO contract from Verizon to form Xfinity Mobile. Charter Communications, meanwhile, talked up the possibility of going mobile, but has yet to put anything on the table. Dish was another big spender at the auction, but hasn't made their move into the mobile space yet. Cable providers aren't the only ones who could jump into the game, though; just about anybody with some low-end spectrum on their hands, thanks to the magic of small cells, could get into the wireless world on at least a regional level. In fact, a good chunk of the auction's participants are already in the wireless space, providing service in smaller rural areas or out on highways, where major carriers mostly either don't reach or have poor coverage. With these two cable giants waiting in the wings, among others, a full-scale disruption in the wireless pecking order is entirely possible. The rest of 2017 and the time between now and 5G's expected full arrival in 2020 is going to be filled with scientific breakthroughs in the mobile world, insane advancements in media consumption and computer interaction, and wildly desirable new Android devices, to be sure, but the US wireless scene is fast shaping up to be one of the most exciting technological races to watch.