Sprint Swaps Spectrum Co. for Google: Care To Guess Who Bids in 700 MHz Now?

As I repeatedly observed during the lead up to last Tuesday’s FCC meeting to decide the rules for the 700 MHz band, it is an extremely risky business to try to guess who will bid at this stage. Despite the much shorter time between announcing the rules for the AWS auction last year and the time bidders needed to get their forms in, numerous companies changed their positions, created new ventures, and generally did the unexpected.

Now, with everyone speculating whether whether or not Google will really bid or whether the cablecos will give the telcos a run for their money, comes a significant change. In the course of a week, Sprint has forged an alliance with Google, followed a few days later with a surprise request to exit the cableco consortium SpectrumCo. This comes on top of Sprint’s announcement two weeks ago that it will team with Clearwire to do nationwide WiMax.

And suddenly all those wise speculations about how Sprint won’t bid because it doesn’t have the cash and it has enough spectrum, Clearwire won’t bid because it’s too small to challenge the telcos, and Google won’t bid because they don’t have the expertise and don’t want to spend the money, need some serious recalculation. A Google/Sprint/Clearwire consortium (with possible help from Intel, which both owns a chunk of Clearwire and participated in the auction rulemaking as part of the “4G Coalition” with Google, Skype, and Yahoo!) looks like much more of a spectrum player than any of them alone. Sprint and Clearwire have the infrastructure and expertise, Google has the bucks and the need to expand into wireless. Further, depending on the nature of the partnership, Google could start testing and and marketing its wireless services now so that it does not have to wait until it has built and activated a network (which probably won’t be until 2010 at the earliest).

Meanwhile, what happens to SpectrumCo.? Granted the cablecos still have no plan for the licenses they got in the AWS auction (since, lets face it, the real reason to show up was to block DBS from getting a terrestrial broadband pipe), but to the extent they pretended to have a plan, they usually cited their ability to work with Sprint as a means of implementing it. So what happens now? Granted the cablecos still have tons of money to throw at this, but how will Wall St. treat their stocks if they look set to pour another couple of billion into a business without the benefit of an experienced partner with existing infrastructure? And besides, with the FCC adopting anonymous bidding, the cablecos will find it much harder (if not impossible) to target and block rivals without going all the way and actually winning the licenses. (Remember, blocking is usually cheap because you don’t usually have to spend the blocking premium, you just have to prove to the other guy that you are willing to spend the blocking premium. It’s like when tough guy walks in on shopkeeper and asks if shopkeeper would like to buy “insurance.” Tough guy doesn’t have to actually trash the store to get paid. As long as shopkeeper believes tough guy will break his legs, shopkeeper will pay to avoid testing the theory.)

So, a mere three days after the FCC announces rules, we find ourselves reexamining the conventional wisdom in light of changed events. McDowell rather relished the warning he gave Martin and the rest of the majority that it was “risky” to tailor the band plan to attract a single “white knight” who would become a new national broadband provider. Suddenly, Martin’s confidence that if you set the table folks will come to dinner seems a bit more justified.

But it’s still a few months until FCC forms to participate will be due, and anything can happen in between.

Stay tuned . . . . .

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