Comcast, T-Mobile predicted as surprise winners in FCC’s 600 MHz incentive auction, UBS report says

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Comcast and T-Mobile took home almost three-quarters of the 600 MHz spectrum that is changing hands in the FCC auction, which wrapped up earlier this week

Comcast and T-Mobile dominated the FCC’s recently completed broadcast spectrum auction, together collecting three-quarters of the total spectrum sold, according to estimates by UBS analyst John Hodulik.

According to Hodulik’s estimates, T-Mobile will end up spending between $8 billion and $10 billion to acquire spectrum that had been owned by local TV stations, while Comcast shelled out $5 billion to $6 billion. AT&T, Verizon and Dish Network each acquired 5 MHz of spectrum, while T-Mobile and Comcast together bought some 50 MHz.

That is almost three-quarters of the total amount that is changing hands in the auction, which wrapped up earlier this week. Hodulik’s estimates were first reported by Investor’s Business Daily.

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The outcome of the auction, which will take up to two more years to implement on the tech side as the airwaves change hands, could heat up competition in the wireless sector. That’s especially true in “rural America, where T-Mobile has been less competitive historically,” Hodulik wrote in the report. It would also fortify the company and make a potential merger with Dish Network less likely, though a tie-up with Spring could still be in the offing.

The FCC plans to formally announce auction results in February.

For Comcast, the outlay is a reversal of its 2011 move, along with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, to sell $3.6 billion of spectrum to Verizon. The addition of spectrum could increase Comcast’s leverage with Verizon in negotiations of network leases. The lease deals would enable the No. 1 U.S. cable operator to make good on its stated plan to start marketing expanded wireless services by year-end.

The long saga of the auction, which took years to wind its way through Washington and a maze of lawyers, engineers and logistics teams, benefited many station owners, whose business is under pressure. Major groups have reported hundreds of millions in one-time gains.

Yet it appeared to fall short of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s 2014 prediction to broadcasters that it was “a once-in-a-lifetime, virtually risk-free opportunity to expand your business model on somebody else’s dime.” In fact, on the latest earnings call for No. 2 U.S. station group Nexstar Media, CEO Perry Sook  said, “I think everybody in the for-profit television business got the joke pretty early on that the auction was not going to be any kind of a game changer or a life-affirming event.”

As the auction finally got underway last year, regulators had to continually lower their estimates for total bidding. In the end, bids amounted to about $19.6 billion, the FCC said in February. Under the rules of the auction, bidders were barred from holding strategic talks until the end of the auction, so it was a complicated task not only to identify who was participating in the auction, but to what end.