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What the Sudden Flurry of 5G Wireless License Deals Means

February 2, 2017, 9:01 PM UTC
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The federal spectrum licenses currently at the center of plans to develop new, super-fast 5G wireless networks weren’t exactly issued yesterday.

In fact, the long and sordid history of the rights to use high band frequencies like 28 GHz and 31 GHz goes back to the 1990s, when the Federal Communications Commission auctioned off licenses to startups that planned to compete over the airwaves with cable TV and telephone service providers. Most failed quickly and the airwave rights have bounced around ever since.

But after years of inactivity, unprofitable activity and bankruptcy activity, it looks like the high band spectrum is finally ready for prime time. With the entire telecom industry set to meet in Barcelona later this month for the Mobile World Congress, 5G and access to suitable high band spectrum are set to dominate the conversation, according to Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche. “We expect this spectrum and 5G will be a big time focus in Barcelona,” Fritzsche wrote in a report this week.

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Fritzsche’s prediction comes on the news this week that Verizon (VZ) completed its $1.8 billion deal to buy most of XO Communications and lease its high band licenses, AT&T (T) bought license holder FiberTower for an undisclosed sum and Dish Network (DISH) swapped some assets with Echostar (SATS) including four 28 GHz licenses.

At the same time, reports emerged that Google (GOOGL) is expanding its Fiber gigabit Internet service using Webpass, the high-band spectrum service it acquired last year. And last month, tiny high band spectrum owner Straight Path Communications (STRP) got clearance from the FCC to sell its licenses.

Licenses in just about all those deals have travelled a tangled path to market–and still may not have much value until the big telecom carriers figure out if they can roll out 5G service economically at the higher frequencies. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint (S) and T-Mobile (TMUS) are all still in pre-commercial trials. And no one can promise yet when–or even if–the complicated technology needed to broadcast the high band signals at speeds 10 to 40 times faster than current 4G wireless networks will be financially viable.

Consider the nationwide rights at 39 MHz that Verizon is leasing in the XO deal, which was mainly about acquiring XO’s nationwide fiber optic network. Verizon holds an option to buy the airwave licenses for $200 million from a company controlled by billionaire investor Carl Icahn. Icahn nabbed XO out of bankruptcy in 2002, fought off investor lawsuits along the way and eventually sold most of the company’s assets to Verizon last year.

AT&T’s quarry, FiberTower, spent a decade trying to get off the ground until it filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and had many of its licenses stripped by the FCC. Straight Path’s licenses were acquired by the company’s former parent, IDT, from bankrupt wireless pioneer Winstar in 2001.

Hedge fund manager Sahm Adrangi, who runs Kerrisdale Capital Management, has been betting that Straight Path’s stock is overvalued and telling anyone who will listen not to believe the hype about 5G. He points to the relatively low $200 million price Verizon agreed it would pay for XO’s licenses and the fact that AT&T didn’t have to disclose what it paid for FiberTower.

“It’s part of AT&T’s charm offensive in attempting to secure approval for the Time Warner deal,” Adrangi says. “It’s casting itself as a champion of innovative technology and infrastructure.”

For more on chipmaker Qualcomm’s view of 5G, watch:

AT&T says the deal will help lay the groundwork to start its 5G push, though it declined to disclose the price. “This transaction gives AT&T enough spectrum at this time to pursue its 5G strategy and the FCC is expected to auction off additional (millimeter) wave spectrum within a few years,” a spokeswoman says.

Despite the buzz of activity, some long-time analysts remain skeptical about the whole the high band 5G push. Walt Piecyk at BTIG Research found the attention on all the recent moves a bit overblown. “None of it is that surprising,” Piecyk says. “There may be activity but it’s unclear on how much actual cash is associated with that activity.”