T-Mobile leads 600 MHz auction, DISH slips easily in behind

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T-Mobile is the big winner, or at least the big spender, in the Federal Communication Commission’s $20 billion incentive auction, walking away with more than half the 600 MHz band licenses up for grabs – 1,525 licenses, 55% of the total. Second place went to DISH, which paid $6.2 billion for 486 licenses, 18% of the total.

Who came in third depends on how you’re figuring it. Comcast bid the third most money – $1.7 billion – but ended up with only 73 licenses, a mere 3%. U.S. Cellular – the distant number five mobile carrier in the U.S. – was number three in the license race, paying $329 million for 188 licenses (7% of the total, but not prime real estate).

AT&T plunked down nearly a gigabuck – $910 million – for 23 licenses, a 1% share. Verizon, on the other hand, was shut out, winning zero licenses but, on the other hand, paying zero dollars.

Sprint didn’t participate, or at least not under its own flag. There will certainly be further wheeling and dealing. Many of the winning bidders appear to be have transaction motives rather than action plans.

DISH is top of that list. Chairman Charlie Ergen made the leap from millionaire to billionaire after placing a low cost, high return bet on direct broadband satellite slots back in the 80s, and has been playing the spectrum sweepstakes ever since. He’ll light up frequencies himself when there’s an open field – as there was with DBS once it got going in 90s – but otherwise manages his licenses as an investment portfolio.

Don’t expect anything revolutionary from anyone in the near term. It’ll take a few years to move TV stations off of the frequencies they’re giving up in exchange for $10 billion. And which they, or at least the original license holders, paid exactly zilch to acquire.