Tales of the Sausage Factory

“The Spring Spectrum Shotgun Wedding Fling” or “Sprint WiMax, the Wily Temptress!”

Was it really only last August that Sprint threw over its cable allies by filing for a messy divorce with Spectrm Co. and ran off giggling with Clearwire and Google for a happy WiMax menage? Ah, what a tempestuous summer of spectrum love was 2007! So full of bright promises and prospects for a wireless third pipe that could genuinely compete with cable or DSL speeds. But with the autumn frost, passions cooled. Like Fantine from Les Miserables, Sprint soon found itself abandoned by its spectrum partners and out on the street on its own — desperately trying to make its way in the cold and uncaring world while posting a loss of $30 Billion, and reduced to chanting the old Israeli spectrum folksong Xhom golly, golly, golly, Xhom golly, golly.

But a possible happy ending for Sprint awaits below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: Assessing A Rather Complicated Result — But Not A Disaster As Some Maintain.

The intervention of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is celebrated by getting drunk until you cannot tell the difference between Verizon winning the C Block and Google winning the C Block, kept me from posting sooner. I would have held off until I could give more details, but there are so many people rushing to call it a disaster that a few words need to be said here.

O.K., Google didn’t win, but Echostar did, giving me a .500 batting average in prophecy against the conventional wisdom. I’m not covinced that Echostar winning gives us a third pipe (Martin’s suggestions about combining this with other spectrum assets to the contrary). But even if not, it is important for keeping Echostar competitive with cable and with DIRECTV (which will have an advantage in programming assests). I shall try to do a more detailed analysis of Echostar and what the E Block does for them in a future post.

It is also interesting to note that some non-incumbents like Cavtel picked up licenses, although I am not as enthusaistic about this for competition as Martin was at the press release.

That said, I do not see how the rules could have been structured any better without barring Verizon and AT&T from playing. While we might have done better for new entrants after all with smalled licenses rather than REAGs, as demonstrted by Echostar doing an end run to assemble a near national footprint after they begged and pleaded to have the FCC offer a national license, I can’t say for sure (I’ll have a longer discussion on this later, and I expect Greg Rose will have some things to say on his blog once he has crunched the numbers). My preliminary conclusion is that Verizon (and to a lesser degree AT&T) was simply determined to get the spectrum it wanted and did not let anything stand in its why. The fact that Verizon paid $9 MHz/Pop for a B block license for Chicago, and that Verizon and AT&T spent over $16 billion of the approximately $19 billion raised should tell anyone who cares about the reality all they need to know. Verizon and AT&T were not “bargain hunting.” They were at each other’s throats and cutting out anyone who dared to get in their way. The only way to stop them was to keep them out entirely, and there was not a heck of a lot of support for that from the Hill or at the FCC beyond the Dems.

I think Commissioner Adelstein gives a fair assesment when he says we won on revenue and openness and lost on diversity and competition. But again, the only way we could have done any better was by adopting auction rules that banned Verizon and AT&T from playing and by using aggressive means to address minority and women ownership (as MAP requested as early as March 2006). Perhaps now Congressional Democrats will add their voices to those of Commissioners Adelstein and Copps on restoring the minority bidding credit and supporting incumbent exclusions or — at a minimum — restoring the spectrum cap.

As it was, thanks to anonymous bidding, Echostar was able to do an end run and acquire a national footprint — something previously denied to it in the AWS Auction in 2006. And, while AT&T and Verizon got most of the licenses, they had to pay through the nose to get them — rather than sopping them up dirt cheap as happened in the AWS auction (where licenses equivalent to the A & B block licenses went for 45 cents MHZ/pop not $9 MHZ/pop). This auction attracted more new bidders and more minority bidders than previous auctions, so the field was ripe for a success on these fronts. But they were simply outspent by Verizon and AT&T.

To conclude, unlike the utter failure of the AWS auction (which everyone else hailed as a success — despite the incumbents winning more licenses for less money), this auction produced some very positive results. But it also shows us the limit of what purely competitive auctions will do. Neither this auction nor freeing more spectrum for future auctions, on their own, will provide us with a third pipe or introduce new competitiors in wireless. The advanatges enjoyed by incumbents in a relatively mature industry (as opposed to back in the early/mid-1990s when the first auctions were conducted) are simply too great to overcome just by “leveling the playing field.”

Finally, one last question remains: Why didn’t Qualcom drop their bid on D Block? Why did they tie up all that eligibility, instead of using it to go after more E Block licenses? For us spectrum geeks, this is the equivalent of asking Why did the Minbari surrender at the Battle of the Line (best answer from a friend of mine: “turns out Echostar bidders have Qualcom souls”). Did Qualcom hope they could keep the D Block for such a low price? Did they wish to avoid a penalty for dropped bids by the time they realized no one would bid on D Block? Hopefully, we will find out.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz: Although Apparently The FCC Decided to Give Headlines . . .

No sooner did the FCC clarify that they would lift anonymity after they collected the money when Martin held a press conference and the FCC released the results. Here are the headlines:

1) Verizon won C Block and a boatload of licenses;

2) AT&T took a boatload of licenses;

3) Google didn’t win anything (stupid oak leaves!).

I will have more details as I can track them down, and more analysis later. I also metaphorically owe Commissioner McDowell a dollar, for his prediction that the new entrants wouldn’t bite on the big C.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

That's It! The 700 MHz Auction Is Ovah ! On to Tasting And Judgment . . . .

At long last, the FCC went three rounds without any new bids and declared Auction 73 (better known as Battle 700 MHz) closed. You can see the final provisional winning bids on the FCC’s Auction 73 page here.

Of course, we are all waiting to see who won what licenses, particularly C Block. But we have some preliminaries to go through first. Most importantly, the FCC has to make a decision on whether to sever the D Block from the Auction so that it can investigate what happened, especially the allegations around Cyren Call and Morgan O’Brien.

Even with the information available, Auction 73 has clearly succeeded on a number of key fronts. Unsurprisingly, I am inclined to credit anonymous bidding with the enormous surge in value for the licenses. Even if incumbents ended up walking away with the lion’s share of the licenses, at least they paid market value for a change (as opposed to the AWs auction, where they picked them up dirt cheap). I also note that at the end of the day, the FCC has only 8 unclaimed licenses (compared with 35 for AWS). As Greg Rose observed previously on his blog, there is good reason to believe we saw a lot of new people bidding.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the auction brought in new competitors or if, as the conventional wisdom predicted, AT&T and Verizon walked off with the big prizes. In particular, we all wait with baited breath on who won C Block.

Finally, two points on D Block. First, even if the experiment failed, that did not make it a dumb move. Babe Ruth used to lead the league in home runs and strike outs, because you can’t hit home runs unless you swing at a lot of pitches. With the FCC trying to satisfy the mandate of Congress to promote a national interoperable public safety network, but with insufficient spectrum allocated and with insufficient funds to build it. So the Commission tried to think outside the box and took a chance. turns out — for reasons still unknown — it did not work out.

Always punish innovators if things don’t go exactly right and you run out of innovators damn quick. Anonymous bidding was also an innovation. So is the open device condition. Before folks rush out to buy stink bombs to lob at Martin and the other Commissioners over D Block, consider if we want the next FCC reduced to such political timidity that we always get the same auction rules again and again and again, because the price of innovating is too high.

Second point: the FCC has a silver lining here. With the auction over, the FCC has fulfilled its statutory obligation to hold an auction commencing by January 28. Not only can the FCC take the time it needs to consider what to do, it can also consider other solutions besides trying to fix up D Block or even auctioning it off the highest bidder. That could include non-exclusive licenses, real time auctions, or even an unlicensed commons — if that would best serve the public interest.

I’m not saying what the best solution for D Block is, because we don’t know enough yet. It will depend on a lot of factors, such as who won the other licenses and how much stomach the FCC has to innovate. But I’m hoping that the FCC and others, when assessing Auction 73, will consider the successes as well as the D Block failure. Otherwise, they will vote to do the politically safest thing. Not a result I’d like to see.

stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

700 MHz: Beating the AWS-1 $/MHz/Pop

A, B, and C Blocks have exceeded their reserve prices as of round 17 in Auction 73, and E Block has reached 83.73% of its reserve price, while D Block has languished at 26.99% of reserve price since the first round. Unless a great deal of the activity in A and B Blocks is intended to preserve eligibility for later round intervention in C Block, the probable C Block winner has likely made its winning bid in round 17.

The rate at which A and B Blocks have exceeded their reserve prices by the end of round 21 today — 190.51% and 462.50%, respectively — seems unlikely to abate, which may push revenue from Auction 73 to $16-17 billion, perhaps as much as $20 billion, despite the fact that D Block will almost certainly have to be reauctioned if the current pattern holds.

How much better A, B, and C Blocks are doing at this point than even at the end of Auction 66 (AWS-1) is shown in this table, which compares the dollar per MHz per population price each license in those three blocks obtained with the provisionally winning bid as of the end of round 21 to the final dollar per MHz per population price comparable licenses received by the final round of Auction 66. Since the bandwidth is different in each auction, $/MHz/Pop standardises the data for comparison.

Clearly the majority of 700 MHz spectrum on offer in Auction 73 is much more highly valued than the spectrum on offer in Auction 66: the average $/MHz/Pop price of an A Block license at the end of round 21 in Auction 73 is 193.53% of the final $/MHz/Pop price of comparable spectrum in Auction 66; the average $/MHz/Pop price of a C Block license at the end of round 21 in Auction 73 is 623.06% of the final $/MHz/Pop price of comparable spectrum in Auction 66. For C Block, the 50-state package (REAGs 1-8) is reaching 102.65% of the final price of comparable spectrum in REAGs 1-8 in Auction 66, while REAGs 9-11 are averaging 134.10% of what they finally obtained in AWS-1.

From the point of view of the U.S. Treasury Auction 73 is already a hell of a success. What remains to be seen is how well new entrants and smaller competitors did, whether the incumbents ran the table again, and whether we got a national third broadband pipe. But we won’t know that until the FCC releases bidder identities and bids at the end of the auction.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz: Notes From The Spectrum New Hampshire Primary, C Block Not Dead Yet

Everyone remember how Clinton was dead after Iowa? Now who remembers two weeks ago, or even last week, when analysts wrote off the 700 MHz auction as doomed due to credit crunch? But, other than D Block’s utter failure to move (and regular readers will know my opinion of why that happened), the auction has proven a success by every measure we can obtain so far. Sadly, however, the key measures are not yet in, and won’t be until after the auction is over. Which is why, despite C Block exceeding it’s reserve price, I caution folks that we are still at the equivalent of just after the New Hampshire primaries and that any speculation about the important points of the outcome remain unresolved.

Here’s what we know for sure now:

1) The current take now stands at over $14 b. This not only exceeds the $10 b that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated, it will exceed the “wildly successful” 2006 AWS auction (which grossed about 13.9 b). A, B, and C blocks have all met their reserve prices, with the most contentious fighting in certain high value markets B block.

2) Because C Block has met its reserve price, it will not be reauctioned and the open device conditions will go into effect.

So the auction is clearly a success from Kevin Martin’s perspective (again, with the exception of D Block, which is a special case). While those like Commissioner McDowell can argue that C block might have fetched more without conditions, $4.7 billion is nothing to sneeze at. And it is clear that the aggressive build out conditions did not scare bidders away from A and B block, so (assuming the FCC is serious about enforcement) we should see increased deployment of services into rural regions.

What we still don’t know is whether the new auction rules gave new entrants a real chance to win spectrum, or (as the conventional wisdom had it) will incumbents Verizon and AT&T end up capturing the lion’s share of the spectrum (albeit at higher prices, owing to the introduction of anonymous bidding). That we cannot know until after the anonymity lifts when the auction ends (which, if the FCC chooses to reauction D Block under the rules proposed for reauctioning the other blocks, might not be for several months yet). Much depends on the identity of the current C Block holder. Is it Google? Verizon? Some other deep pockets like AT&T or Echostar, or perhaps the mysterious Vavasi NexGen Inc.? And is C Block settled? If the package bidder in round 17 knocked off the previous high bidder, then the previous high bidder will need to respond fairly soon or it will start losing its eligibility (bidding chips) and no longer be able to challenge.

If it turns out the incumbents capture most of the spectrum, I will need to eat a huge plate of crow and tip my hat to Commissioner Adelstein and Publius at Obsidian Wings, both of whom fretted that only Verizon could win a huge block like C Block and that we would get more new entrants by slitting the spectrum up. OTOH, if the Great Google Prophecy comes true, I will become insufferably pleased with myself for at least a month.

But, rather than pull a Tweety Bird and start treating my own speculation in the absence of data as fact, I will simply say —

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

700 MHz: The C Block Minuet

The fact that the C Block has dangled on the precipice of reaching its reserve price from round 13 to the close of today’s bidding action in round 16 has led to speculation that Google never intended to go seriously for the spectrum, but was merely trying to goad Verizon or ATT into committing on the Block. I grant that we have almost no intelligence on who the C Block bidders are, and it is very, very early to speculate on the auction’s ultimate outcome. However, I have a theory, grounded in an understanding of game theory and the auction rules, which calls this latest conventional wisdom into question.

There are at least two, and possibly three, current bidders for the bulk of C Block. Two have been trading off the lead for the 50 state package (REAGs 1-8), let’s call them A and B: A in the first round (1 new bid), B in the second (1 new bid), A in the third (1 new bid), B in the fourth (1 new bid), A in the fifth (1 new bid), B in the seventh (1 new bid), A in the eighth (1 new bid), B in the tenth (1 new bid), A in the twelfth (1 new bid), B in the thirteenth (1 new bid). B has been the high bidder since the thirteen round with no need to raise its bid. In the sixth round there were also mid-range bids placed individually on REAGs 1-8. Either the individual bids on REAGs 1-8 in round six were B’s response to A’s bid on the package in round 5 or another bidder, C, forayed at that point.

B can sit indefinitely on its current bid, waiting for the minimum acceptable bid (MAB) to converge on the reserve price of the Block without requiring activity waivers (the FCC historically reduces MABs in the presence of bidding inactivity). That would allow B to obtain the package for almost $122 million less than the current MAB for round 17. A must bid on REAGs 1-8 either on the package or individually in round 17 or lose eligibility, since it has had to expend three activity waivers to avoid bidding in rounds 14, 15, and 16. That is what we know.

I hypothesize that B is Google, that it is sitting just below the reserve price, and will continue to do so unless another actor bids, until just before the close of the auction, when it will bid the reserve price and save roughly $122 million. I grant that it is also possible that B is Verizon or ATT or some other bidder which I don’t know and haven’t mentioned. But game theory and the auction rules explain why B is sitting pat. A has to bid in round 17 (the MAB for the 50 state package in round 17 is over the reserve price of the Block, and the sum of MABs for REAGs 1-8 individually in round 17 is equal to the MAB for the 50 state package), or B’s strategy is likely to win.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Not Giving Up On The Great Google Prophecy

You can read a far more brilliant analysis by Greg Rose on why the punditry on the trickle of data from the 700 MHz auction is all wrong here. Briefly, Greg maintains that this slow convergence on the reserve price over several weeks of bidding is what to expect from a serious auction, and that the failure of parties to bid heavily on C or D Block in the early rounds with so much activity going on in the smaller blocks is a sign of a strong auction to come. Little players on the side are active for the specific licenses that they want, while the large bidders slowly stalk each other up to the reserve price on the major block.

For me, having stacked much on the Great Google Prophecy, I will cheerfully admit to being too close to things to judge objectively. But here are two tidbits of food for thought.

1) Google CEO Eric Schmidt made the evolution of the wireless net a centerpiece of his speech at Davos. How likely is it that Google CEO would hype the importance of wireless if they were not planing to win licenses?

2) Most analysts predicted Google would come in, bid the reserve price for C Block, and leave. They haven’t. So far, no one has bid the reserve price for C Block. Instead, the price has crept up gradually. Now it could be that Google will only bid high if it must, for fear of getting stuck with licenses it doesn’t want. But if that is the case, why show up at all? “To save face with the FCC?” Yes, but we will know after the auction when the identities of bidders and round by round information is revealed if Google never bid. So the “save face” excuse doesn’t really hold water. Rather, it seems likely that they are bidding like everyone else, i.e., like bidders that want to win.

Straws in the wind, perhaps. But no worse than the straws of data everyone else is trying to spin into gold.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

Definitely Not Smarter Than the Average Bear

Much of the press surrounding the first two days of the FCC’s 700 MHz auction has been like this Information Week story. I confess to being both amazed at the shallowness of the reporting and amused at its gloom and doom tone. To hear the press tell it, it’s time to be very bearish on this auction.

A look at historical precedent is salutory. The FCC’s Integrated Spectrum Auction System files for Auction 66 and Auction 73 are the places to start.

At the end of round four in Auction 66 (AWS-1), the high bids for the EAs, CMAs, and REAGs were, respectively, 4.15%, 7.09%, and 12.03% of the final net PWB prices with 47.84% of licenses receiving at least one bid. At the end of round 4 in Auction 73 (700 MHz Band) the high bids for EAs (A and E Blocks), CMAs (B Block), REAGs (C Block), and the nationwide D Block license were, respectively, 31.87%, 43.03%, 39.06%, and 26.99% of reserve price with 83.80% of licenses receiving at least one bid.

Auction 66 netted $13.7 billion. Auction 73 has a reserve price threshold of $10,386,011,520. By any objective criteria Auction 73 is off to a much better start generally than Auction 66 was. The fact that the D block has had only one bid in the first four rounds isn’t terribly unusual; several licenses which eventually went in Auction 66 for very substantial sums had very little early-round action. It’s important to point out that auctions with relatively high reserve prices tend to exhibit slow convergence bidding on reserve price and provide significant incentive to try to obtain the license for as little over reserve price as possible. When this tendency is coupled with the FCC’s bidding increment rules, it is rather obvious that the auction is going to take some serious time and that it’s rather impressive how close to reserve price the bidding is at so early a stage.

Auction 66 ran 161 rounds. I expect Auction 73 to run at least 100 rounds, and probably significantly longer. It is much too early to announce that the results of Auction 73 are disappointing… unless you appear to know as little about how FCC spectrum auctions actually work as much of the press does.

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Econoklastic

The 700 MHz Band Auction, Part IIIc: The Big Guys and the Wild Cards

Finally, again let’s begin our analysis of strategic options for major actors in Auction 73, 700 MHz Band, with a look at the footprints established by many of those actors in two previous Lower 700 MHz auctions (Auction 44 and 49) and the AWS-1 auction (Auction 66):
Cellular Market Areas (CMA) Map for Auction 44
Economic Area Groupings (EAG) Map for Auction 44
Cellular Market Areas (CMA) Map for Auction 49
Economic Area Groupings (EAG) Map for Auction 49
Cellular Market Areas (CMA) Map for Auction 66
Economic Areas (EA) Map for Auction 66
Regional Economic Area Groupings (REAG) Map for Auction 66

The Big Guys

There are quite a few major actors who qualify as the genuine big guys in Auction 73. Their participation and fundamental interests in this spectrum ensure that the reserve prices will be met and likely exceeded on all blocks (with some caveats on D Block).

QUALCOMM makes the list of the big guys in the auction if for no other reason than it nearly scored national footprint (minus the Western EAG) in a Lower 700 MHz auction. The 700 MHz Band auction provides a source of spectrum entirely compatible with its acquisition for its MediaFLO datacasting enterprise. It may be a C Block contender, but it is more likely that QUALCOMM will concentrate on E Block to flesh out its national footprint and consolidate. This isn’t going to be a QUALCOMM versus the world auction; QUALCOMM will narrowly target specific licenses, go after them tenaciously, and then get out if it looks like the spectrum is going for higher prices than expected.

More below…

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