Dissecting Qualcomm’s auction plans

RCR Wireless News
Qualcomm Inc. is no stranger to the Federal Communications Commission and its auction process for spectrum. The company has successfully bid on and won spectrum before, and it appears ready to strike again with the 700 MHz auction, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 24. But what would the wireless juggernaut do with more spectrum in its pocket?

Having already filed its intention to bid with the FCC, many analysts expect Qualcomm to expand the reach and capabilities of its MediaFLO USA Inc. subsidiary, which provides broadcast mobile TV services on mobile devices.

Although it’s not a technical requirement, some have suggested Qualcomm has its eyes set on spectrum sitting alongside its existing MediaFLO holdings.

“It’s very similar in its propagation to the spectrum they currently own,” said Seamus McAteer, chief product architect and senior analyst at M:Metrics Inc. “They have had difficulty in freeing up certain blocks in the band they’re using for MediaFLO in a number of locales so if this helps them overcome that, then it’s a success.”

But Roger Entner, senior VP of the communications sector at IAG Research, said he doubted the 700 MHz spectrum currently up for auction would be available any sooner than the spectrum Qualcomm is waiting to be freed up in some markets where broadcasters haven’t completely transitioned away from analog transmissions.

“I don’t think that the 700 MHz spectrum that’s up for auction will be available before they clear up the spectrum they have now,” he said.

“The most logical scenario is that they would expand MediaFLO. That’s the most logical,” Entner added. “I haven’t seen or heard anything that would suspect they’re launching something else, something different. I think it’s unlikely that they would launch a new service provider.”

Following the names

With Qualcomm declining to discuss any aspect of its spectrum strategy, the best crystal-ball view of its plans might be in its filing with the FCC, which requires bidders to name all partners that it plans to talk to during the auction process. The document reads like a MediaFLO channel listing with all the usual suspects named under the agreements section along with its two operator partners, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility.

But it also lists a few new names: Casbah Productions L.L.C. and Comstock Inc., which are designated as content agreement holders with MediaFLO, and Nasdaq Stock Market L.L.C., which is listed as having a distributor and separate vendor agreement with the Qualcomm subsidiary.

Casbah Productions is a music distribution company that films concerts and distributes them online. There are a number of Comstock Inc.’s in existence, but unless Qualcomm is planning to get into the home-building business, it’s likely the agreement was made with the photo and image provider, which licenses images for commercial use and advertising. And everyone knows Nasdaq’s game.

M:Metrics’ McAteer wasn’t surprised to hear the list of companies included in the filing. “(Qualcomm’s) vision for MediaFLO was more expansive than video. They were always interested in datacasting,” which would push personalized, real-time data feeds to a device, he said. Datacasting could include personalized stock quotes, sports scores, weather and more. MediaFLO has been talking about its datacasting plans since last spring.

“There is also interest in audio and music and using it as a platform potentially for distribution of digital audio,” McAteer said. “It could also be used in a more interesting way for distribution of song titles.”

Plus, it could always give MediaFLO the opportunity to offer more channels of video.

Regardless of Qualcomm’s plans, Entner said it makes perfect sense that Qualcomm would bid in the 700 MHz auction. “Spectrum is like money, you know, you can never have enough,” he said. “For a company that breathes and lives wireless like Qualcomm, there’s always use for spectrum.”

MediaFLO USA currently offers eight channels of video on Verizon Wireless and expects to rollout services with AT&T Mobility sometime this quarter after the No. 1 carrier delayed its self-imposed deadline to offer the mobile TV service by the end of 2007.

“I would expect to see content types beyond plain video trialed on this essentially multi-cast IP network,” McAteer said. “Underneath it all, they’re using Internet-like technologies and protocols to distribute and disseminate this content. Video was the first kind of content they’re distributing, but it won’t be the only kind of content.”

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