The Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing Spectrum Frontiers auction of millimeter wave spectrum has raised more than $5.3 billion in bids, after 24 rounds.

More than 14,100 licenses are up for grabs across three mmWave bands in Auction 103: the upper 37 GHz band (37.6-38.6 GHz), the 39 GHz band (38.6-40 GHz) and the 47 GHz band (47.2-48.2 GHz). The licenses are based on a Partial Economic Area geographic basis which divides the country into 416 sections.

There is more spectrum available at 39 GHz than in the other two bands, with 14 blocks of 100 megahertz available, or 5,824 individual licenses. The 47 GHz and upper 37 GHz bands each have 4,160 licenses available, or 10 blocks of 100 megahertz in each PEA. The FCC has authorized either fixed or mobile use in the bands, and the commission has emphasized the sheer amount of spectrum available: at 3,400 megahertz, it’s the largest amount of spectrum ever offered in an auction.

So that $5 billion-plus may sound like a lot, but a number of observers have pointed out that on a price per-megahertz-POP basis, Auction 103 is actually turning in disappointing numbers — at least, in terms of money raised. Stephen Wilkus, CTO at Spectrum Financial Partners, has been tweeting his analysis of the auction and remarked that “Most properties offered in this auction have not had a bid placed on it (Demand < Supply). In fact, 346 out of the 416 Partial Economic Areas auctioned off have no bids at all,” and that at least as of round 21, “it appears that opening prices were set too high.”


Auction 103 had raised just over $3 billion earlier this week, after 17 rounds of bidding.

The FCC has divided the spectrum into two categories of licenses: 24 100-MHz licenses in the 37 and 39 GHz frequency blocks, the MN or M/N licenses, and ten 100-MHz licenses in the 47 GHz frequency block, the P licenses.

Of the 832 total spectrum “products” (the MN and P licenses in each of the 416 PEAs), 228 had more demand than supply as of the close of round 24, another 174 had demand equal to supply, and 430 had more supply than demand.

Sasha Javid, COO at the Spectrum Consortium and former chief data officer and legal advisor on the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force, has also been following the auction and posting analysis on his blog. He has pointed out that the demand for the MN licenses is higher than for the P licenses.

As is typical, licenses in dense urban areas — New York City; Los Angeles and San Francisco, California; Chicago, Illinois; and the Baltimore-Washington D.C.-area — were the most hotly contested from the get-go. But while the licenses covering New York City currently have the highest posted prices, ranging from around $28 million to $37.5 million, the most expensive licenses on a price per megahertz/POP basis are actually the MN licenses for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Phoenix, Arizona, according to Javid’s analysis.

There are 35 qualified bidders competing for spectrum in Auction 103, which, like Auction 102, is using a clock format for the first phase. In the clock phase, bidders compete for the license type they desire, with prices automatically increase each round, until bidders’ demand for licenses at a certain price matches the supply. An assignment phase for specific spectrum blocks will follow the clock phase.

Javid noted that there was a sharp drop-off in excess demand between rounds 19 and round 21.

“Pushing more spectrum into the commercial marketplace is a key component of our 5G Fast plan to advance American leadership in the next generation of wireless connectivity,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement as the auction began, noting that the FCC expects to hold two auctions of mid-band spectrum next year: its Priority Access License auction for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum at 3.5 GHz in late June, and a C-Band spectrum auction “in the latter part of 2020.”

Two more rounds of bidding will be held today, and then the auction will pause and resume on Monday, January 6.

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