Who Wants to Be a Billionaire, Wireless License Auction Edition

People use their mobile phones during a performance at the 2018 Global Citizen Festival
People use their mobile phones during a performance at the 2018 Global Citizen Festival: Be The Generation in Central Park on September 29, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
Angela Weiss—AFP/Getty Images

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It’s a fun time of year for that particular group of reporters, analysts, lawyers, and other hangers on who closely follow the telecommunications industry. That’s because the Federal Communications Commission is holding two airwave license auctions later this year and this week the agency publicly disclosed the applications of the companies that might want to bid.

Sure, it’s most likely that the bulk of the licenses to offer cellular service in the 28 GHz and 24 GHz bands, perfect for upcoming 5G networks, will be bought by the usual suspects AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), and T-Mobile (TMUS). But with public disclosure of the people behind every application, it’s also kind of like buying a lottery ticket in that $548 million MegaMillions lottery drawing on Friday. We reporters get to dream of who else might buy into the industry—and write stories about them—at least until the auction ends.

Two years ago, it was James Hulce, a 20-year-old college student from Menomonee Falls, Wis., who got some ink for applying to bid in the FCC’s 600 MHz auction. He won one license. A big story that mattered more came 10 years ago when Google (GOOGL) popped up in the pool of bidders for the so-called C-Block of 700 MHz spectrum. The company’s participation let it influence new open access rules mandating that consumers could bring their own devices to use on those airwaves, helping kick off the smartphone revolution. The search giant’s bids, none of which succeeded, also drove up prices for the rest of the field.

This time around, I and other reporters are just getting started poring over the dozens of filings. One entity called “8538 Green Street LLC” includes Vincent McBride as an owner. A former mailman, McBride got rich off buying and selling licenses starting in the 1990s. The Wall Street Journal had that great story, already, of course. McBride reveals in the new filing that he’s making an average of $1.2 million a year. And don’t skip the married couple backing “High Band License Co LLC.” Billionaires Rajendra and Neera Singh started as cellular engineers before parlaying winning spectrum bids into huge riches. The Washington Post had that tale. Who else is in this year’s field? I’ll let you know.

(This story was updated on March 31, 2019 to correct that James Hulce won one license.)

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