Paul Allen vs. Google?

Cable, wireless phones, and billions of dollars for the FCC.

Later this month, the Federal Communications Commission will be auctioning off the 700-megahertz frequency band. This spectrum, as it's called, is being abandoned by the TV industry in 2009 with the shift to digital, and is valued at around $15 billion. It's being sold in chunks, with Paul Allen up against bidders including AT&T, Verizon, and Google, which has offices in Kirkland and Fremont. (Allen is currently thought to be worth under $20 billion, while Google's market capitalization is around $150 billion; and what benefits Google tends to hurt Microsoft's share price, which is like opening up a big hole in Allen's pocket.) Google successfully lobbied for the FCC to designate portions of the 700 MHz band as open-source, meaning the eventual owner will have to allow new gizmos to work with—and profit from—its acquisition. If it offers a winning bid on some of that bandwidth, Google will have to spend billions more to build an entire network to support the magical new G-Phone it supposedly has up its sleeve. It could also partner with AT&T or Verizon, or buy a chunk of the spectrum and license it back to the big telecom companies under terms that would later optimize its hypothetical G-Phone. For Allen and his Vulcan Spectrum LLC, buying up spectrum could allow him to provide wireless services to the more than 5 million customers of his cable company, Charter Communications. (In our state, the St. Louis–based company serves lesser markets like Ellensburg and Wenatchee.) Bundling cable with cell and Internet could help recover some of his investment in Charter, whose market cap has plummeted to around one-sixteenth of its peak valuation of $8 billion. Or, like Google, Allen could choose to partner with a bigger telecom, acting as landlord on his bandwidth. And if he buys some of said spectrum, he could even end up a facilitator of Google's future open-source apps. Allen already owns 24 licenses from the 700 band, acquired in a 2002 auction, including a Seattle-Everett chunk bought for $3.9 million. Some of that lies adjacent to the spectrum coming up for auction on Jan. 24, but it's unclear if contiguity carries extra value. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Vulcan purchasing more bandwidth could provide a tax advantage for Charter. Or, like rival Qualcomm, it could use the frequency to broadcast video to portable devices. Meaning that, a few years from now, stuck on the SLUT in traffic-congested South Lake Union, you could be watching TV on your G-Phone. By which time, outside, Google will probably be a tenant in one of Allen's new buildings.

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