700 MHz Auction Pre-Game: Just A Bit More Unseemly (and perhaps untimely) Gloating . . . .

So last summer, as we debated the rules for the upcoming 700 MHz Auction, one of the big questions we at PISC repeatedly kept getting asked was “so who is really going to show up to bid?” Especially on controversial issues like open access (and even its wussier cousin, device open access), block size (have big blocks and combinatorial bidding, or maximize smaller blocks), and anonymous bidding, the incumbents all kept repeating over and over again how any deviation from previous rules would keep people from bidding and the auction would be a failure and everyone would hate us forever. Commissioner McDowell reiterated these criticisms (at least with regard to the open device conditions on C Block) in his dissenting statement:

Curiously, however, in an effort to favor a specific business plan, the majority has fashioned a highly-tailored garment that may fit no one. It’s not what Silicon Valley wants; it’s not what smaller players have told me they want; and it’s not what rural companies want. To date, the Commission has received no assurances that any company is actually interested in bidding on the encumbered spectrum. Not one.

Because, of course, everyone knew Google wasn’t going to bid, the DBS companies weren’t going to be real players, and if anyone new was planning to show up, there was no sign of it. Even those most eager to see new competitors emerge (and who ultimately supported the PISC proposals) had their doubts and looked for as much reassurance as possible before taking a leap of faith that we were right.

Well, the FCC just released the list of applicants to bid in the upcoming 700 MHz auction. A total of 266 potential bidders filed (the bulk of the forms are “incomplete” due to procedural defects that will be corrected, but this is pretty standard). That’s more than the 252 potential applicants that showed up at this stage for the “wildly competitive” and “highly successful” AWS auction in August ’06. The list includes Google, Frontline, Echostar, and — as I kept insisting — a number of companies that could not possibly be predicted as bidders until bidding rules were actually determined and potential bidders got to assess whether they had a chance or not.

Towerstream is an excellent example of this last type of bidder. No one could possibly predict that they would show up, and many folks still can’t believe it. But Towerstream CEO Jeff Thompson cites the FCC “embracing the open access model supported by Google” as making the spectrum a “natural fit” for his entreprenurial wireless broadband company, and credits the FCC for making the auction amenable to new bidders. Nor is Thompson alone. A host of newcommers apears to have found the rules attractive enough to make it worthwhile to ante up for a chance to play.

We must still see what happens, of course. I can recall all the pre-game prediction for the AWS auction, where the most valuable licenses ended up in the hands of the usual suspects. In many ways, this is working out like my waiting to see if the Patriots complete a perfect season or if the Red Sox would win the World Series. There is lots of room still for things to go badly. But I can’t help but feel a happy, warm contented glow (and breathe a quiet sigh of relief) that I don’t have to answer the age old question “what if we throw a party and no one shows up?”

Stay tuned . . . .

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