T-Mobile, Dish Network dominate spectrum spending as top two stand by

|By:, SA News Editor

As it had promised, T-Mobile (TMUS +0.2%) made a splash at the FCC's yearlong spectrum auction, making its biggest-ever investment ($7.99B) to acquire more than 1,500 licenses nationwide (45% of the spectrum auctioned).

That's a move that will help its network catch up to those of wireless leaders AT&T (T -0.7%) and Verizon (VZ -0.6%), who largely sat out this sale (but in large part because their eyes are turned forward to 5G implementation, rather than more 4G spectrum).

But it will take time. For one thing, there's a "repack" ahead where TV broadcasting airwaves are repurposed for mobile use, and that may take a few years before they're put into action. T-Mobile chief John Legere promises it will put 600 MHz spectrum to use "later this year," with 1M square miles cleared for use by the end of 2017.

Investors may disapprove of Dish Network (DISH -2.5%) spending $6.2B on more than 480 licenses, adding to its heavy spending in the last spectrum auction. That spending won't quiet speculation about M&A activity; the company has a huge cache of spectrum and no currently known plan for how it will implement it, short of pairing with an existing provider.

Behind T-Mobile and Dish, but also gathering airwaves, Comcast (CMCSA -0.4%) spent $1.7B on 73 licenses (and got $481.6M in the reverse auction, after giving up NBC-owned spectrum in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago). AT&T spent $910M for 23 licenses -- a drop in the bucket at the huge carrier. U.S. Cellular (USM -2.1%) spent $328M but got 188 licenses, with a rural focus.

With a good hoard of spectrum and a relatively bigger cash problem, Sprint (S -0.7%) sat out this round. But is T-Mobile still in need of a merger partner in Sprint, now that it's taking on a sizable amount of prime low-band airwaves?

After hours: TMUS +0.7%; CMCSA -0.2%.