The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has told the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) it needs to first know how much 3G spectrum will go on auction early next year for it to set a reserve price in the 2.1GHz band.

On 16 October DoT requested TRAI to set the base price for the 2.1, 2.3 and 3.5GHz spectrum to be sold.

But TRAI Chairman Rahul Khullar (pictured) said it can’t move ahead to determine the prices since the Ministry of Defence hasn’t yet agreed to swap airwaves with DoT to free up 15MHz of 2.1GHz spectrum. He said with this additional bandwidth, the government could accommodate up to four operators across the country for 3G spectrum, the Economic Times reported.

Earlier in the month Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas joined Vodafone and Bharti Airtel in calling for the government to release much-needed 3G spectrum to ensure the country’s mobile operators can keep up with soaring demand.

The Times quoted Khullar as saying: “Holding auctions as is will set the industry back by three to four years.”

Government officials, however, argue that given the short time frame, it will be a challenge to have an auction in all the frequency bands.

GSMA, the trade association for the mobile industry, has stressed that next year’s spectrum auction is particularly crucial for India’s mobile industry and, if handled badly, could have damaging consequences.

Tom Phillips, GSMA’s chief regulatory officer, said: “Failure of the existing operators to retain their current spectrum, which is due to be relicensed as part of the auction process, would not only jeopardise their businesses, but threaten the continuity of the vital mobile services they provide to citizens across the country.”

And with specific reference to the 2.1GHz situation, Phillips noted: “We believe that the government should accelerate the migration of non-mobile users from the 2100MHz band, in particular the defence industry, so the spectrum can be made fully available for 3G mobile communications, in line with international standards.”

Phillips noted that while the GSMA fully supports the auction plans and the need to make additional spectrum available prior to the auction, “we suggest that the government reconsider its approach to the treatment of India’s existing mobile operators, to ensure that users do not suffer any breaks in service”.

The government in April announced plans to auction airwaves in two frequency bands early in 2015. The 900MHz sale will be held because operators’ 20-year licences expire, while the 1.8GHz spectrum to be auctioned was unsold in February’s auction.

TRAI suggested on 15 October a base price of INR30.04 billion for the 900MHz band and INR21.38 billion as the starting price for the 1.8GHz allotment, according to a Morgan Stanley report. The 900MHz frequency will be auctioned off in 18 service areas while the 1.8GHz will be sold in 22 regions.

TRAI, however, is pushing the government to hold off on the auction until more spectrum is made available across the country.