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Spectrum Warehousing: Were They or Weren't They?

Mon, 03/26/2012 - 11:03am
Maisie Ramsay

About a year ago, the National Association of Broadcasters accused a number of companies of hoarding spectrum so they could sell it at a massive profit to wireless operators desperate for additional airwaves. 

 

Among those accused: Time Warner Cable, Comcast, BrightHouse Networks and Cox Communications, which at the time still hadn't come up with concrete plans for the valuable nationwide AWS spectrum they purchased in 2006 through the SpectrumCo partnership.

 

 So perhaps that's why something about Comcast's latest explanation of its spectrum sale to Verizon Wireless seemed oddly familiar to me as I read its response to an FCC query this morning.  

 

There it was again: a rebuttal to suggestions that the spectrum had been purchased with the intention of profiteering off a public resource.

 

 The FCC asked Comcast earlier this month to explain a number of public comments made by CFO Michael Angelakis that suggested the company didn't really intend to use its spectrum, contrary to its continued insistence that its wireless plans were genuine. The FCC’s questions about his comments were part of a broader inquiry into details of the AWS transaction. 

 

Angelakis' comments weren't a one-time deal - they spanned a number of years and consistently implied that Comcast was more interested in selling off its spectrum than going through the risk and hassle of operating its own network.

 

According to the FCC, Angelakis said in 2008 that Comcast didn’t' "feel the immediate pressure of needing a wireless product" and told investors the next year that "we don't want to be the seventh competitor in a market that it’s mature from the voice side. And it's a huge economic investment, which we're uncomfortable there's a real return for."

 

Last September, just months before the cable companies and Verizon began negotiating the spectrum deal, Angelakis said: "We have no desire to own a wireless network."

 

But perhaps most damming is Angelakis' comments at an investor conference earlier this year, about one month after SpectrumCo sold its spectrum to Verizon at a net profit of about $1.5 billion: "We never really intended to build that spectrum."

 

So what was it? Did Comcast and its SpectrumCo partners ever intend to build a wireless network? Or were they really planning to sit on the airwaves until they came immensely valuable?

 

Comcast's condensed explanation: The wireless market changed dramatically after it first bought the spectrum six years ago, and after spending millions to clear the airwaves and evaluate all possible options, it "concluded that there were substantial financial risks associated with the construction of a wireless network... with no guarantee of a return on the investment. For all of these reasons, SpectrumCo made the business decision not to become a standalone, facilities-based wireless provider and instead entered into the proposed transaction with Verizon Wireless."

 

As for Angelakis' most recent statement that Comcast "never really intended to build that spectrum"? Comcast called it a "shorthand reply on a subject with a long and complex history... and was not intended to describe Comcast's or SpectrumCo's intentions at the time when the AWS licenses were acquired."

 

Then there are the comments made by Time Warner Cable executive Robert Marcus last year – the statements which raised the ire of the broadcast television industry.

 

Marcus said the company had “no current plans to divest… or otherwise monetize” its share of the SpectrumCo spectrum, and seemed to suggest the company was looking to profit off the airwaves, saying it was “always keeping our eye on what the market for spectrum is."

At the time that controversy emerged over Marcus’ statements, I had doubts about how genuine the cable companies were about their wireless plans. After all, some of their executives had said publically that it didn’t plan to use the spectrum they paid $2.4B for.  

 

 In a blog post I wrote on the issue last year, I said, “Perhaps we should be taking a closer look at companies like Time Warner Cable that seem to be sitting on spectrum with no plans to bring it to market in any meaningful way.” 

 

I still have some doubts. SpectrumCo is making a tidy profit by selling its AWS holdings to Verizon. Angelakis’ comments – which Comcast says are accurate – seem to indicate the company knew as early as 2008 that it wasn’t too serious about its wireless plans, but still waited years to pursue a sale of the assets.

 

On the other hand, Comcast said SpectrumCo spent upwards of $20 million to clear its spectrum of more than 500 incumbent microwave links and conducted "extensive" testing of various network technologies including WiMAX and LTE.

 

Then there’s Cox Communications, which split from SpectrumCo to pursue its own wireless strategy; it eventually gave up plans for its own network and instead forged an MVNO deal with Sprint.

 

The failure of a company as determined as Cox lends credence to the claims of the other SpectrumCo partners: There was just no way to launch a competitive wireless network on 20 MHz of spectrum at a time when data traffic is soaring.

 

The story SpectrumCo tells – that it was thwarted by changes in the industry that made a standalone network impracticable – is beginning to ring true for me.

 

I still hold some doubts about how genuine the companies’ wireless ambitions were – the group’s efforts to get in on the wireless business seem halfhearted, and could be no more than a camouflage for a profit-making scheme.

 

But perhaps what I perceive as a less-than best-effort attempt was really just the companies being cautious – as we’ve seen from the struggles of incumbent players, wireless isn’t an easy business.

 

SpectrumCo says it decided to bow out after looking at issues like the "significant cost of building a wireless network, capacity and additional spectrum requirements (particularly in light of consumers' increasing demand for data-rich mobile services).”

 

Yes, SpectrumCo could avoid a lot of risk and glean a nice profit if the FCC approves its spectrum sale to Verizon. But with even the Big Two struggling to handle surging data traffic, it’s hard to blame SpectrumCo for taking the easy route.

 

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