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The FCC Just Wrapped Its First 5G Airwave Auction. Here’s Why It Didn’t Even Crack $1 Billion

January 24, 2019, 11:08 PM UTC

The latest federal airwave license auction ended on Thursday with winning bidders offering a total of $702 million for the rights to use the 5G-suitable band.

In the Federal Communications Commission’s 101st spectrum auction, which kicked off in November, the agency sold almost 3,000 licenses to broadcast in the 28 GHz band, generally best for new 5G wireless networks coming online over the next few years that will be anywhere from 10 to 40 times faster than current 4G LTE networks. The agency hasn’t yet disclosed the winning bidders and said 107 licenses received no acceptable bids.

The bidding was relatively muted compared to some past auctions, like 2017’s 600 MHz auction that raised a total of $20 billion. That’s because Verizon (VZ) already owns about half the licenses in the 28 GHz band, including in many prime urban locations. And the FCC has several more auctions planned to sell licenses in other 5G bands that are much less encumbered.

The agency qualified 40 potential bidders, including entities representing all of the four largest carriers, AT&T (T), Verizon, Sprint (S) and T-Mobile (TMUS). Some of the licenses covering more rural areas could have been bought by much smaller companies or even individuals, as happened at some past FCC auctions.

The highest winning bids totaled only $12.5 million and $11.4 million and were for licenses covering Dane, Wisconsin, followed by $10.3 million and $10.1 million for Honolulu. Many licenses went for just $200, like those covering Glasscock, Texas, and Dundy, Nebraska.

With so much of the spectrum in the 28 GHz band already taken, many bidders may be more active at the next FCC auction, for licenses in the 24 GHz band. That bidding was expected to begin shortly, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said. Then later this year, the FCC plans to sell licenses in at least three more bands for 5G: 37 GHz, 39 GHz, 49 GHz.

“The successful conclusion of our nation’s first high-band 5G spectrum auction is a significant step toward maintaining American leadership in 5G,” Pai said in a statement. “But we can’t afford to rest on our laurels—and won’t.”

All five bands are considered extremely high wavelength bands compared to those used for mobile phones today, such as the 700 MHz and 2.5 GHz bands. Sometimes called the millimeter wave bands, the high frequency bands have signals that can carry a lot more data but don’t travel as far and have trouble penetrating obstacles like buildings and trees. No mobile phones can yet operate in the bands, but Intel (INTC) and Qualcomm (QCOM) have announced that compatible modems and 5G phones should start arriving later this year, with Apple’s (AAPL) first 5G iPhone rumored for 2020.