T-Mobile USA (TMUS) - Get Report , Dish (DISH) - Get Report , Comcast (CMCSA) - Get Report and AT&T (T) - Get Report were among the top spenders at a government wireless spectrum auction that raised nearly $20 billion, the FCC announced on Thursday. It is the second-highest total for an FCC spectrum auction, although some had expected greater spending by AT&T, Verizon (VZ) - Get Report --which did not bid--and perhaps even Comcast.
The FCC's incentive auction allowed TV station owners to sell their broadcast spectrum licenses to wireless carriers, with the government acting as a middle man. All together, broadcasters sold $10 billion of licenses. Comcast's NBC was among the sellers, as were opportunistic startups backed by PE outfits Blackstone Group (BX) - Get Report , Michael Dell's MSD Capital and Fortress Investment Group .
Just as importantly, the FCC announced that a quiet period that bans talks between participants ends April 27. When the restrictions lift, M&A talks between Sprint, T-Mobile, Dish and others could pick up.
T-Mobile spent nearly $8 billion. CEO John Legere said the carrier "cleaned up" by purchasing 45% of the spectrum sold. The licenses are in the 600 MHz band, which carries transmissions for long distances and can pass through structures like buildings better than higher frequency spectrum.
With a strong spectrum position and financial position, Macquarie analyst Amy Yong suggested in a note, T-Mobile could be in the "driver's seat" in merger talks with Sprint (S) - Get Report , which did not participate in the auction. "If [a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint] is going to happen, talks are likely to begin soon," she wrote. "We believe T-Mobile's enhanced spectrum position enhances its negotiating power."
Satellite TV group Dish surprised analysts by spending $6.2 billion through affiliate ParkerB.com Wireless.
"We had expected Dish to be a de minimis player in the auction," analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson said in a report. "Dish's spectrum spending underscores the growing importance of the company's valuation as it relates to their spectrum holdings."
Dish chairman Charlie Ergen has aggressively bought up spectrum in government auctions and bankruptcy court in recent years. The looming question is what Dish will do with the mobile licenses it has acquired. Ergen has suggested that the company will build out a wireless network for 5G services, the next generation of wireless technology that will enable greater data capacity and connection of more devices and machines in the Internet of Things.
While Dish could build a network, it could also sell its spectrum or merge with a wireless carrier. "Dish's outsized investment in spectrum could make it more appealing to Verizon," Yong noted, "who did not secure spectrum in the auction."
Comcast agreed to spend $1.7 billion, which was less than the $5 billion that Wells Fargo had forecast.
Offsetting the spectrum payout is $480 million that Comcast's NBC will collect for selling TV stations in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
All together, TV station owners will collect $10 billion for licenses that they sold. Most will go to other frequencies or share spectrum with a different channel in their market. About a dozen will go off the air.
A number of PE-backed outfits picked up struggling stations in big markets with an eye to selling in the auction. Fortress portfolio company NRJ TV, Michael Dell's OTA Broadcasting and Blackstone-backed LocusPoint Networks are on the FCC's list of sellers.
NRJ sold stations in major TV markets such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, as well as Harrisburg, Pa., for a total of about $450 million, according to calculations made with FCC data. NRJ's station WZME, which is based in Bridgeport, Ct., but is within Nielsen's New York City market, sold for $191 million.
Michael Dell's OTA sold stations from Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; four in Pittsburgh, Pa.; Providence, RI; and San Francisco for $367.5 million. OTA's top sale was CW network affiliate WLWC in Providence, which fetched nearly $126 million.
LocusPoint sold Miami and Pittsburgh stations for $15.1 million, according to the FCC data.
This story will be updated with additional information.