The FCC’s auction of new wireless spectrum—the biggest auction of its kind since 2008 —has vastly exceeded revenue expectations, surpassing $40 billion in bids as of Wednesday morning. Considering most analysts predicted that the auction would fetch somewhere between the FCC’s reserve price of $10 billion and $15 billion, the auction appears to be a resounding success. The auction is for mid-band spectrum that carriers can use to help deploy 4G LTE networks. The success of the spectrum auction is particularly notable in light of arguments from wireless carriers in recent months that the application of net neutrality rules to wireless broadband would diminish their incentives to invest in infrastructure. Although the FCC has indicated that it is considering applying net neutrality rules to both wireless and wired broadband, carrier interest in bidding on the available spectrum surpassed all expectations.
The reason carriers are scrambling to buy up available spectrum is quite simple: consumer demand for wireless data has exploded in recent years, due to a robust market for mobile applications and services. The global market for mobile apps and advertising was worth $38 billion in 2013, up from about $6.8 billion in 2010. This latest spectrum auction shows what the FCC has described as the “virtuous cycle of innovation” at work: the more and better wireless services and applications are available to customers, the more consumers will demand sufficient capacity to use these services, and the more incentive carriers have to invest and expand their networks. Startups and entrepreneurs always find creative ways to make use of greater bandwidth and faster speeds, creating new applications to harness advances in infrastructure, further increasing consumer demand for more applications and more network capacity.
The key to all this innovation growth, of course, is robust competition and sound policy managing the finite public resource that is wireless spectrum. To ensure that the the wireless market remains competitive and innovative, the FCC and other regulators must work to promote policies that encourage wireless providers to use their spectrum efficiently and fairly, including taking steps to protect Open Internet principles in wireless networks and preserving spectrum for unlicensed use. The success of the auction is an encouraging sign for the future prospects of the US wireless market, but regulators should continue to work to ensure that sufficient spectrum is preserved for unlicensed use and not exclusively controlled by a few carriers.