India’s government announced plans to auction off about 3,000MHz of spectrum across nine frequency bands, potentially its largest auction ever, but the country’s mobile operators are again pushing for a delay until the debt-laden industry completes a current wave of consolidation.
The telecom ministry asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to recommend reserve prices for spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1.8GHz, 2.1GHz, 2.3GHz, 2.5GHz, 3.3GHz to 3.4GHz, and 3.4GHz to 3.6GHz bands, The Economic Times (ET) reported. Spectrum above 3GHz will be offered for the first time. A date for the auction was not set.
Rajan Mathews, director general at Cellular Operators Association of India, said the government “must not rush into any spectrum auction this year” and auctions must be initiated “only once all consolidation has been announced and locked down”, ET reported.
Following the release of a consultation paper by TRAI on auctioning spectrum in seven bands in 2017, market leader Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular and others argued the industry isn’t ready for another auction due to operators’ high debt levels and an ongoing price war kicked off by the entry of Reliance Jio in September 2016. Operators have repeatedly pushed for the auctions to be delayed until late 2018 or early 2019.
Operators also want the auction of 5G spectrum put off until 2019 or 2020 to give time for a device ecosystem to mature.
The country’s last spectrum auction, held in October 2016, raised $9.8 billion but 60 per cent of frequencies were left on the shelf. The strongest interest was in the 1.8GHz and 2.3GHz 4G bands in the service regions covering the major cities. But there was no interest in the highly efficient 700MHz and 900MHz bands due to the high reserve prices. The government had hoped the 700MHz band alone would bring in an estimated INR4 trillion ($62.2 billion), but the band went unsold.
The Department of Telecommunications had put more than 2,300MHz of spectrum up for the 2016 auction, which was forecast to raise as much as INR5.6 trillion. But just 965MHz of the total was sold.
To make the 700MHz spectrum attractive to operators, analysts say the reserve price needs to be cut sharply.