In case you missed it, the FCC just raised a boatload of cash -- $44.9 billion, to be exact.
That's the total amount that companies bid on spectrum licenses in the latest auction of AWS-3 midband spectrum. DISH Network (NASDAQ:DISH) was a big buyer of spectrum licenses, snatching up nearly half of the available licenses. It particularly concentrated on markets where Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T (NYSE: T) are capacity strained.
The one major wireless company that didn't participate in the auction was Sprint (NYSE:S), which acquired a large amount of 2.5 GHz spectrum when it purchased Clearwire in 2013. DISH also made a bid to acquire Clearwire -- probably for its spectrum holdings. On average, Sprint owns 120 MHz of spectrum in 90 of the top 100 markets.
While 2.5 GHz spectrum isn't as valuable as the recently auctioned AWS-3 band, it's still very serviceable for expanding capacity and increasing speeds of LTE data connections. That means Sprint may look to lease or sell its excess capacity -- an approach DISH is likely attempting given its push to create supply constraints in AT&T and Verizon's top markets.
The clock is ticking
In 2012, the FCC approved DISH Network's plan to use its 40 MHz of satellite spectrum for terrestrial use dubbed AWS-4. However, the decision came with some conditions. DISH must provide wireless service to 40% of the population covered by its spectrum before 2017 and 70% by 2020.
Many have speculated that this will cause DISH Network to acquire or merge with T-Mobile. But after spending $10 billion on additional mid-band spectrum (of which T-Mobile has plenty), the odds that DISH will look to acquire the Uncarrier seem much smaller.
Much more likely is that DISH will look to lease its portfolio of spectrum licenses. The huge amounts AT&T and Verizon have spent guarantee that they're going to start building out infrastructure that will support the mid-band spectrum, and T-Mobile's already been busy building out its capacity with its portfolio largely concentrated in the mid-band.
DISH Network can sell its AWS-4 spectrum, but it can't sell its new AWS-3 spectrum licenses without incurring a penalty since it bought its new spectrum licenses through "designated entities" that receive a 25% discount. The rules state that the company must hold the spectrum licenses for at least five years.
But why would DISH want to sell its spectrum anyway? As the number of Internet-connected devices grows, spectrum will only become more valuable. In fact, analysts believe DISH will be able to lease its entire spectrum portfolio for as much as $10 billion per year. The only reason to sell the AWS-4 spectrum is if DISH is unable to meet the FCC's requirements.
And Sprint could throw a wrench in all of it
Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure indicated earlier this year that in light of the high prices the AWS-3 spectrum fetched at auction, the company may look to sell or lease some of its 2.5 GHz spectrum to Verizon or AT&T. AT&T is the only other company with similar spectrum, and it currently isn't working on building infrastructure or buying phones that support Sprints 2.5 GHz spectrum.
That means 2.5 GHz spectrum is worth significantly less to Verizon and AT&T than DISH's mid-band spectrum. However, considering DISH just ran up the price on hundreds of spectrum licenses, the two big carriers may be more likely to make a deal to buy the 2.5 GHz spectrum outright from Sprint rather than deal with DISH. Mind you, the revenue opportunity for Sprint will be curtailed by other costs involved for AT&T and Verizon.
Considering Sprint paid just $0.30 per MHz-Pop when it acquired Clearwire, it still stands to make a nice profit. The AWS-3 spectrum just sold for approximately $2.71 per MHz-Pop. Even if Sprint can only get one-third of that price of the high-band spectrum, that's a 200% return on investment in just a few years.
Sprint currently has more spectrum than any other carrier, but it's highly concentrated in the 2.5 GHz band. Still, a lot of that spectrum isn't very useful in the hands of Sprint, and it could be much more valuable to Verizon or AT&T. That means the spectrum market could suddenly switch from a seller's market -- which is what DISH is trying to create -- to a buyer's market if AT&T and Verizon can pit Sprint against DISH.
Adam Levy owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.