What spectrum crisis? First airwave auction in 6 years kicks off with little fanfare

For the first time in half a decade, the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday opened up bidding on a new spectrum auction, releasing new airwaves for 3G or 4G data services to potential buyers. But you would hardly know it, judging from the lack of interest across the mobile industry.

Not a single one of the four nationwide providers is participating in what is now known as Auction 96, which is distributing 10 MHz of frequencies in the 1900 MHz PCS band nationwide. That’s not exactly the kind of behavior you’d expect from an industry that insists it faces a spectrum crisis of the direst order.

regional mobile carrier

Granted 10 MHz isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. It’s enough to add incremental 3G capacity or deploy an LTE network half the size of what most major operators have in the field today. But bandwidth is bandwidth. Yet the major carriers have decided to take a pass on these airwaves, looking ahead to the FCC’s big incentive auction next year. If done right, that auction could open large chunks of frequencies in the much more desirable 600 MHz band.

So who is participating in Auction 96? Dish Network(s dish) is probably the one name you’ll recognize, but a lot of smaller carriers are also submitting bids in hopes to add to their regional holdings. In three rounds, bids now total $221 million. As you would expect, licenses in the big cities are attracting the most interest. The New York City license alone has attracted one quarter of all bids so far, followed by Los Angeles and Chicago.

The auction is just getting started, and it doesn’t run at quite the fast pace as estate sale. The FCC holds three bidding rounds each day until there are no more bids. This auction certainly won’t be the two-month-long process we saw in 2008 for the highly contested 700 MHz airwaves. We’ll probably see this auction conclude in a few weeks if not less.

Tower photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Nneirda