Econoklastic

And Now for D Block

It’s apparent to anyone who has been following the 700 MHz auction that the plan to allocate spectrum for a nationwide public safety network which would allow a private company to deploy the infrastructure and sell access to the network to private users, who could be preempted by public safety users in an emergency, isn’t going to happen. D Block has miserably failed to reach its reserve price for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the apparent bullying of Frontline by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust’s agent Morgan O’Brien which led to Frontline’s withdrawal from the auction.

Fellow Wetmachiner Harold Feld’s trenchant analysis lays out the options for D Block. I have a few things to say on the matter as well.

A national public safety broadband system is a vital national security interest of the United States. The notion of handing vital national security infrastructure over to private enterprise is one of the worst ideas the Bush administration has ever had. It hasn’t worked well in Iraq and it’s a non-starter for D Block. Let’s drive a stake through the heart of the idea that private providers can more efficiently deliver a vital public good than government can. The FCC should simply shelve the D Block proposal until the new Congress is elected.

The new Congress should definitively decide whether a national public safety network is, as the 911 Commission opined, a vital national security need. If so, it should appropriate the funds for the federal government to build and deploy the necessary infrastructure. It’s what Dwight Eisenhower did with the interstate highway system. The 700 MHz auction has already raised nearly twice the projected revenue. Either a national public safety is needed or it isn’t.

Such a federally-built public safety network offers an additional benefit. There is little additional marginal cost to building a network which allows capacity to be used by others while allowing public safety to preempt them during emergencies. Such capacity could be offered at cost to municipalities for community wireless broadband networks. The presence of such a government-owned network would force the major wireless broadband providers to cease redlining rural and inner-city America, closing the digital divide, as well as provide partial reimbursal to the Treasury for the costs of building the network. We would have our third broadband pipe, and it would be a joint federal-state-local asset.

If a national public safety broadband network is needed, we should do it right and the government should build it, or the Democrats and Republicans in Congress should publicly admit that there is no compelling national security need. And if it is built, it should be built with the benefit of all Americans in mind, not just the profits of the corporate greed machine.

Probably won’t happen, for all the reasons Harold cited. But it makes me nostalgic for a visionary like Dwight Eisenhower (and those are words I don’t often utter).

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Auction: Whither The D Block?

With even Chairman Martin publically agreeing that D Block is unlikely to attract any new bids, the question logically arises — what now? Needless to say, folks have not been shy about voicing their suggestions — especially those who think we ought to focus on maximizing revenue. Instead, I have a novel suggestion. Why don’t we actually investigate what the heck happened first?

More below . . . .

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Econoklastic

700 MHz: When Will it End

E Block reached its reserve price in round 44 on Thursday and the FCC announced that it was going to six bidding rounds per day beginning on Friday, Feb. 8.

However, while D Block is probably permanently stalled below its reserve price for Auction 73 and will likely have to be reauctioned, there is still sufficient activity in the auction to expect that it will continue for as much as two more weeks, depending on whether the FCC decides to further accelerate the number of rounds per day. The following table shows the rates of convergence to full clearance over the past six and the past three rounds. These rates are consistent with an auction conclusion in the last week of February or the first week of March if previous auctions are a reasonable guide. However, there have been sufficient anomalies in auction performance in Auction 73, notably high amounts by which A and B Blocks have exceeded their reserve prices and the speed with which these prices have been obtained, which caution us not to rely too much on previous auction behaviour. The FCC has been gradually upping the number of bidding rounds per day and I expect further increases, as the agency seems inclined to press the auction to conclusion.

On the basis of these facts I would estimate at least two, perhaps three more weeks of bidding, primarily in E Block, before we see the end of Auction 73.

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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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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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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Stop the Auction! Congress and the FCC Must Investigate D Block Allegations Before Proceeding.

This is a reprint of a piece I just posted on the Public Knowledge Policy Blog.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Did Morgan OBrien and Cyren Call Kill Frontline?

I’m getting a number of folks from different walks of life coming forward with the same story: Morgan O’Brien was the direct cause of Frontline’s investors pulling out.

Of course, there is no way I can actually confirm this on the record because the people in the room either can’t talk about it (due to the anticollusion rules) or won’t. Nevertheless, having confirmed this with sources I find reliable and who could not have coordinated with each other, I feel I need to come forward here and put this on the table. D Block and the public safety partnership are far too important to end up falling victim to the combination of insider baseball, manipulation and greed that appears at play here.

I have absolutely not talked to anyone at the FCC about this. No one at the FCC can legally respond to any of this, and I would not ask them to do so. Similarly, in my discussions, I have been at pains to avoid any conflict with the anticollusion rules. Nevertheless, the sources I have are, I believe, reliable, and I have therefore made a decision to go forward with this story. I must also add that because I am on sabbatical, I have not had any discussions about this with my employer, Media Access Project, or with anyone at Media Access Project while developing this story.

Details below . . . .

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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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