The Ratings Game: AT&T is biggest spender in latest major 5G auction

AT&T Inc. emerged as the biggest spender in a major auction for 5G wireless spectrum that brought in more than $22.5 billion in total proceeds, the Federal Communications Commission announced Friday.

AT&T T, +1.42% will spend $9.1 billion on the 3.45 GHz spectrum it won at the latest auction, while Weminuche LLC was the next largest bidder, with $7.3 billion in commitments. Companies sometimes bid at spectrum auctions under alternate names, and Weminuche is a proxy for Dish Corp. DISH, -0.30%, according to analysts.

T-Mobile US Inc. TMUS, -1.45% will pay $2.9 billion for spectrum it amassed at the auction, and Verizon Communications Inc. VZ, -0.45% doesn’t appear on the FCC’s list of winning bidders.

As U.S. wireless carriers look to build out their 5G networks, they’ve partly looked to acquire mid-band spectrum through auctions held by the FCC. This latest auction for 3.45 GHz spectrum was smaller than a record auction for C-Band spectrum that brought in more than $81 billion roughly a year ago.

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Still, while investors may be “almost numb” to the dollar figures around spectrum commitments given the big scale of recent auctions, MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett wrote that AT&T’s spending “translates to nearly a quarter turn of additional leverage” while Dish’s represents “roughly two years of Ebitda, or two full turns.”

Overall, he wasn’t too surprised with the “rank order” and “magnitude” of spending coming out of the most recent auction.

AT&T was viewed by some analysts as having the weakest mid-band spectrum positioning ahead of the auction, and the company has been selling off media assets as it doubles down on its wireless business. Verizon’s absence from the list of bidders may reflect the company’s intense spending during the C-Band auction, when its winning bids equated to $45.5 billion, or more than half of the auction’s total proceeds.

T-Mobile already had a sizable stash of mid-band spectrum owing to its 2020 deal for Sprint. It’s participated in the last two major auctions, but to a smaller extent than its key rivals.

Dish had been relatively quiet in the C-Band auction but stepped up its spending during the most recent one, at least on a relative basis. The company purchased some prepaid brands from Sprint in conjunction with the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, and now Dish is in the process of building out its own wireless network.

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