Few industry analysts seemed surprised when Sprint’s new CEO announced “after thorough analysis” that the company won’t participate in next year’s auction of TV broadcast spectrum (known as the “incentive auction”). Analysts already knew that Sprint “has the spectrum it needs to deploy its network architecture of the future.” As a senior telecommunications analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence said in response to the news, “Sprint really has a lot more spectrum than its rivals, so they don’t have that pressing need to get more.”
The announcement is an embarrassment to the Department of Justice (DOJ), which apparently didn’t know (or didn’t care) that Sprint was flush with spectrum for the foreseeable future. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was developing its auction rules, the DOJ urged it to “ensure” that both Sprint and T-Mobile would “win” spectrum in the auction. The DOJ believed Sprint and T-Mobile had to win “low-frequency” spectrum in the auction in order to compete against Verizon and AT&T in the mobile marketplace. The FCC agreed with the DOJ’s expert opinion and decided to “reserve” the auction’s best spectrum for bidders other than AT&T and Verizon.
Though it’s no surprise, it’s now obvious the country’s federal experts on competition and antitrust matters were wrong in their analysis of Sprint’s alleged need for low-frequency spectrum in order to compete. The agencies were blind to Sprint’s effort to leverage Washington to its business advantage even though Sprint used the same tactics just a few years ago in the last major spectrum auction. As FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently noted, “Sprint’s decision not to participate in the incentive auction highlights the folly of the FCC’s attempt to pick winners and losers before the auction begins.” It’s been less than a year since Sprint told the FCC that it would be “unable to make up much, if any, ground” competing against Verizon and AT&T if the FCC didn’t expand its existing spectrum reserve so that Sprint could acquire additional spectrum. It was only after the FCC completed its spectrum reserve proceeding that Sprint announced it doesn’t need the spectrum after all. Read More