The FCC is set to vote later this month on rules for the incentive auction of spectrum licenses in the broadcast television band. These licenses would ordinarily be won by the highest bidders, but not in this auction. The FCC plans to ensure that Sprint and T-Mobile win licenses in the incentive auction even if they aren’t willing to pay the highest price, because it believes that Sprint and T-Mobile will expand their networks to cover rural areas if it sells them licenses at a substantial discount.
This theory is fundamentally flawed. Sprint and T-Mobile won’t substantially expand their footprints into rural areas even if the FCC were to give them spectrum licenses for free. There simply isn’t enough additional revenue potential in rural areas to justify covering them with four or more networks no matter what spectrum is used or how much it costs. It is far more likely that Sprint and T-Mobile will focus their efforts on more profitable urban areas while continuing to rely on FCC roaming rights to use networks built by other carriers in rural areas.
The television band spectrum the FCC plans to auction is at relatively low frequencies that are capable of covering larger areas at lower costs than higher frequency mobile spectrum, which makes the spectrum particularly useful in rural areas. The FCC theorizes that, if Sprint and T-Mobile could obtain additional low frequency spectrum with a substantial government discount, they will pass that discount on to consumers by expanding their wireless coverage in rural areas.
The flaw in this theory is that it considers costs without considering revenue. Sprint and T-Mobile won’t expand coverage in rural areas unless the potential for additional revenue exceeds the costs of providing rural coverage.
A study authored by Anna-Maria Kovacs, a scholar at Georgetown University, demonstrates that the potential revenue in rural areas is insufficient to justify substantial rural deployment by Sprint and T-Mobile even at lower frequencies. The study concludes that the revenue potential per square mile in areas that are currently covered by 4 wireless carriers is $41,832. The potential revenue drops to $13,632 per square mile in areas covered by 3 carriers and to $6,219 in areas covered by 2 carriers. The potential revenue in areas covered by 4 carriers is thus approximately 3.5 times greater than in areas covered by 3 carriers and nearly 8 times greater than in areas covered by 2 carriers. It is unlikely that propagation differences between even the lowest and the highest frequency mobile spectrum could reduce costs by a factor greater than three due to path loss and barriers to optimal antenna placement.
Even assuming the low frequency spectrum could lower costs by a factor greater than three, the revenue data in the Kovacs report indicates that additional low frequency spectrum would, at best, support only 1 additional carrier in areas currently covered by 3 carriers. Low frequency spectrum wouldn’t support even one additional carrier in areas that are already covered by 1 or 2 carriers: It would be uneconomic for additional carriers to deploy in those areas at any frequency.
The challenging economics of rural wireless coverage are the primary reason the FCC gave Sprint and T-Mobile a roaming right to use the wireless networks built by Verizon and AT&T even in areas where Sprint and T-Mobile already hold low frequency spectrum.
When the FCC created the automatic roaming right, it exempted carriers from the duty to provide roaming in markets where the requesting carrier already has spectrum rights. (2007 Roaming Order at ¶ 48) The FCC found that, “if a carrier is allowed to ‘piggy-back’ on the network coverage of a competing carrier in the same market, then both carriers lose the incentive to buildout into high cost areas in order to achieve superior network coverage.” (Id. at ¶ 49). The FCC subsequently repealed this spectrum exemption at the urging of Sprint and T-Mobile, because “building another network may be economically infeasible or unrealistic in some geographic portions of [their] licensed service areas.” (2010 Roaming Order at ¶ 23)
As a result, Sprint and T-Mobile have chosen to rely primarily on roaming agreements to provide service in rural areas, because it is cheaper than building their own networks. The most notorious example is Sprint, who actually reduced its rural coverage to cut costs after the FCC eliminated the spectrum exemption to the automatic roaming right. This decision was not driven by Sprint’s lack of access to low frequency spectrum — Sprint has held low frequency spectrum on a nationwide basis for years.
The limited revenue potential offered by rural areas and the superior economic alternative to rural deployment provided by FCC’s automatic roaming right indicate that Sprint and T-Mobile won’t expand their rural footprints at any frequency. Ensuring that Sprint and T-Mobile win low frequency spectrum at a substantial government discount would benefit their bottom lines, but it won’t benefit rural Americans.