The upcoming government airwave license auction is expected to raise more than $30 billion as leading mobile carriers scramble to grab more spectrum and relieve their crowded networks.
Anyone who wants to participate has to file a disclosure form with the Federal Communications Commission, which set the rules for the auction and will oversee the bidding for bands in the 600 MHz frequency. The spectrum rights up for sale are held by television stations that have excess capacity thanks to digital transmission technology and the spread of cable service.
The disclosure filings always provide reporters with a rich source of news ahead of the auctions, as potential bidders in the past few decades of sales have attracted big names entities owned by the likes Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, cable magnate John Malone, and fund manager Mario Gabelli. Sometimes companies from outside the industry make waves as well, as Google did in bidding and helping to drive up prices in a 2008 auction.
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But on Friday, the Wall Street Journal published a surprising story that took a deep dive into the 104 forms filed for the auction and uncovered not famous names or big companies but some 30 ordinary-seemingly individuals who have filed to bid. That’s six times as many people as filed to bid in the last FCC spectrum auction, the newspaper said.
One person identified from the filings was James Hulce, a 20-year-old college student from Menomonee Falls, Wis. Despite that seemingly humble background, he has filed to take on the likes of Verizon Communications (VZ), AT&T (T), and T-Mobile (TMUS)—Sprint (S) has said it is sitting out this auction.
Hulce didn’t immediately respond to an email from Fortune. He is a college student who plans to build his own wireless operation if he wins any licenses, he told the Journal.
In some prior auctions, licenses covering more obscure or rural areas have sold for only hundreds of thousands of dollars as opposed to rights for big cities like New York or Los Angeles, which can go for multiple billions of dollars each.
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Hulce and the other individuals who filed to bid may be counting on new FCC rules designed to give advantages to smaller companies. Under the rules, small companies and individuals may qualify for a 25% discount on their winning bids and will be allowed to immediately lease out their rights for use by established carriers instead of being required to build out their own service.
But analysts don’t expect many winners from among the individuals. “I’m guessing most of these are just playing around rather than potentially serious bidders,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaws Research. “Perhaps one or two have some sort of hyper local plans in mind for using the spectrum, but even then most of them will struggle to win against the big bidders.”