Most wireline players pass on FCC’s 3.45 GHz auction – here’s why

Cable and wireline players were some of the top bidders in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) CBRS auction last year but by and large appear to be sitting out an upcoming sale of adjacent mid-band spectrum between 3.45 GHz and 3.55 GHz.

Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Communications, Windstream and Mediacom all ranked among the top 10 spenders in the CBRS auction, which included spectrum from 3.55 GHz to 3.7 GHz. Yet none of these companies were on the FCC’s list of applicants for the 3.45 GHz auction. Others, including Altice USA, Cable One, Shentel and Lumen Technologies were also absent. Comcast and Charter both confirmed to Fierce they are not participating, as did Mediacom and Lumen Technologies.

Frontier Communications was apparently the only one interested in participating, although it was listed among 15 other companies as having submitted an incomplete application. It has until September 2 to resubmit its paperwork.

Set to kick off October 5, the 3.45 GHz auction will include 4,060 flexible-use licenses sold in 10 MHz blocks. No bidder will be allowed to win more than 40 MHz in a given partial economic area.

Analysts at Raymond James said in a research note they expect the 3.45 GHz auction to be “much more similar to the smaller, cheaper CBRS auction” than the blockbuster C-Band sale, which ended in early 2021 after raking in more than $81 billion in bids. They highlighted the lack of cable participation as “noteworthy,” adding they believed such players “might have a larger presence in this auction after spending $1.2B in the CBRS auction but nothing in the more expensive C-Band auction.”

RELATED: Verizon, Dish & cable top list of CBRS auction winners

But many of the companies that took part in the CBRS auction are either content with or are still digesting their winnings.

Jeff Small, president of Kinetic by Windstream, told Fierce the company “has secured all the spectrum needed to fulfill its deployment objectives.” He explained “fixed wireless has a limited role in rural broadband” adding its “intent is to pursue a fiber-first broadband deployment program and leverage fixed wireless only when fiber-to-the-home cannot be made economically viable.”

Similarly, a Mediacom representative told Fierce “we feel like we won enough spectrum in the CBRS auction to offer a quality fixed wireless product (100 Mbps) to unserved and underserved areas adjacent to our existing wireline network.” The operator launched its CBRS-based fixed wireless service, called Mediacom Bolt, in mid-July. 

Meanwhile, Lumen stated it didn't have a current or proposed product that would require the 3.45 GHz spectrum up for grabs.

Both Charter and Comcast have said they plan to use the 3.5 GHz airwaves they won in the CBRS sale to deploy their own mobile infrastructure which can be used to offload MVNO traffic. But on Charter’s Q2 earnings call in July, CEO Tom Rutledge said its CBRS infrastructure won’t be active until “early next year” and won’t offer “any meaningful national offload” until the beginning of 2023.

With cable out and “no other dark horses” signed up, New Street Research analysts concluded in a research note “the bulk of the competition for the spectrum will happen between carriers (as expected).”