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Data: FCC; Chart: Axios Visuals

A bidding war for airwaves that power 5G service has already hit a record-setting $66 billion as of Tuesday evening and could hit $72 billion for the U.S. government before Christmas.

Why it matters: Wireless carriers, cable companies and others need these airwaves to deliver 5G service, and the U.S. is behind other countries in doling them out.

What's happening: Companies like AT&T and Verizon are competing in a Federal Communications Commission auction for airwave licenses in a "sweet spot" (known as the C-band) of the spectrum that will allow them to provide 5G speeds to consumers.

  • "There’s a lot of pent-up demand," New Street Research analyst Philip Burnett said. "The carriers have been waiting for years now to get their hands on this spectrum, and they realize what’s on the line, so they’re willing to spend."
  • Capital is cheap right now, where an extra $10 billion of bids costs $500 million to finance, which large operators can afford, noted Walter Piecyk, partner at analyst firm LightShed.

So far, companies have bid $66 billion and will pay an additional $13 billion to get quick access to the licenses. The bulk of that money will go to the U.S. Treasury.

  • Bidding in the current auction began earlier this month and is beginning to slow.
  • "At some point the aggregate dollars each of these carriers will owe is going to be more than they can possibly raise without having their credit ratings downgraded," Burnett said.

Flashback: The previous record-holder was an airwaves auction in 2015 that generated nearly $45 billion in bids.

What's next: Because the airwaves are already being used for other services, the earliest the winning bidders will be able to deploy them for 5G will be at the end of 2021.

  • That's only in the biggest cities in the U.S., Burnett noted. For everyone else, it will likely be 2023 before these airwaves are used for 5G.

Go deeper: Watch Axios' "Get Smart" videos to learn more about 5G

Go deeper

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf to step down

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf. Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf will step down from his position in June, after more than 26 years with the company, according to a press release out Tuesday.

The big picture: Cristiano Amon, the company president who headed its 5G strategy, received unanimous support from the board of directors to replace Mollenkopf. The shift comes as the company has greatly increased its focus on the development of 5G technology.

50 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Read: Pete Buttigieg's opening statement ahead of confirmation hearing

Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's nominee to be secretary of transportation, in December. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/AFP via Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's nominee to lead the Transportation Department, will tell senators he plans to prioritize the health and safety of public transportation systems during the pandemic — and look to infrastructure projects to rebuild the economy — according to a copy of his prepared remarks obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: Buttigieg will testify at 10 a.m. ET before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He is expected to face a relatively smooth confirmation process, though GOP lawmakers may press him on "green" elements of Biden's transportation proposals.

Off the Rails

Episode 8: The siege

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 8: The siege. An inside account of the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 that ultimately failed to block the certification of the Electoral College. And, finally, Trump's concession.

On Jan. 6, White House deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger entered the West Wing in the mid-afternoon, shortly after his colleagues' phones had lit up with an emergency curfew alert from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.