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Chamath Palihapitiya Is Raising Billions to Take On AT&T and Verizon

Right now, his startup Rama consists of six or seven people, a big idea and some cash.

Brian Ach / Getty Images Entertainment

In a birthday note in September, investor Chamath Palihapitiya acknowledged that he only has another three decades or so left on earth and it was time to “really start fucking some shit up.”

Well, he is working to make good on that pledge. During an onstage interview Tuesday, Palihapitiya told Re/code’s Ina Fried that his firm, Social Capital, is building a company that plans to bid next year in a government auction that would give it the airwaves needed to offer wireless service in competition with AT&T and Verizon.

The Federal Communications Commission is set to auction off what Palihapitiya and others call “beachfront property” of spectrum formerly held by TV broadcasters. It’s a chunk of the radio frequency airwaves well suited to cellphone networks because it can carry through buildings and over long distances. AT&T and Verizon are expected to bid, but some of the spectrum is set aside for smaller players. T-Mobile has said it, too, plans to bid, though cash-strapped Sprint is taking a pass.

The big question has been who else will join in the bidding, including upstarts as well as potentially others, such as Comcast or Google.

Speaking at the M1 Summit on Tuesday, Palihapitiya became the first of the new entrants to declare his intentions.

Though somewhat scant on details, Palihapitiya told Re/code the company is called Rama and will use software from another of his companies, LotusFlare, to help manage and organize the network. LotusFlare’s initial efforts, as well of those from Rama, have been focused on emerging markets, with Rama having 10 megahertz worth of spectrum in Sri Lanka and negotiating deals elsewhere.

“Now we are going to come in and bid for spectrum in the U.S.,” he said.

Palihapitiya said the goal is to use the spectrum and an array of microcells to provide better coverage than traditional carriers, while allowing the use of any device and offering simple billing.

Right now, Rama is just six or seven people, a big idea and a lot of money.

“It’s not a lot of people; it’s more a lot of cash,” he said. Palihapitiya said his firm is investing a lot, but he said there are other big-name investors whom he declined to name. That will come out next year, he said.

And the airwaves are just part of what any company needs to get into the business of offering wireless service. If Rama can win in the auctions — something he expects could cost between $4 billion and $10 billion, Palihapitiya said the company can then go about building a network and operations to rival the big carriers.

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