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Cellcos regain lead in AWS auctions

As satellite providers throw in the towel

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At the end of round 25 of Auction 66, the ongoing FCC sell-off of licenses in the AWS band in 1.7GHz and 2.1GHz, bids totalled $11.3bn.

Despite all the excitement over the entry of new challengers to the established cellcos, those incumbents were at the top of the bidding tree after round 25 on Friday, while the satellite operators had dropped out.

However, the various cable-driven groups remained in play.

After round 25, T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless and the Sprint/cableco joint venture were the top three bidders to date, especially for the most prized licenses on offer, the six large regional 20MHz F Block allocations, which together cover nearly all the continental US.

Verizon Wireless looks poised to win four of these, including the large north eastern one, while T-Mobile, whose need for spectrum for 3G roll-out is urgent, is likely to gain the other two, for the western and central regions, as well as some valuable, though more localised, licenses in New York City and in western and Midwestern districts.

The Sprint venture's major gains look set to be in metropolitan markets throughout the US, particularly New York City and surrounding areas. It has high bids in about 95 markets.

With bidding for the F blocks slowing in the past few rounds, it is now unlikely that alternative candidates will gazump Verizon and T-Mobile.

Verizon Wireless only placed bids on F-block spectrum, ignoring the rest of the 1,116 licenses available, and at round 26 had committed $2.8bn for this spectrum, including $1.3bn for the Northeast license alone. Verizon Wireless' other high bids were on the F-blocks covering the Great Lakes, Southeast and Mississippi Valley regions.

T-Mobile USA looks set to pay about $1.3bn for its two regional F-blocks and also has high bids on 128 smaller licenses, with a total of $3.8bn on the table so far.

The bidding is also slowing for some of the regional D and E-block licenses, which cover the same geographic areas as the F-blocks, but with only 10MHz apiece.

The regional carriers have been in hot pursuit of these. Big players in the early rounds, they have proved unable to match the budgets of the national players in the F-blocks, but may do well in the 10MHz race. In particular, MetroPCS Communications is likely to have landed such regional licenses in the Northeast and West, as well as a New York City license.

Leap Wireless and Leap-backed Denali Spectrum License have high bids for a Great Lakes D-Block license and a Central E-block license.

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