India’s massive spectrum auction ended after five days yesterday, with bidding hitting $9.8 billion but 60 per cent of frequencies left on the shelf.

The strongest interest was in the 1.8 and 2.3GHz 4G bands in the service regions covering the major cities. But there was no interest in the highly efficient 700 and 900MHz bands due to the high reserve prices. The government had hoped the 700MHz band alone would bring in an estimated INR4 trillion ($59 billion), but the band went unsold.

The Department of Telecom (DoT) had put more than 2,300MHz of spectrum up for auction, which was forecast to raise as much as INR5.6 trillion ($83 billion). But just 965MHz of the total was sold. All of the 2.3GHz airwaves were bought, but only 75 per cent of the 1.8GHz, 60 per cent of the 2.5GHz, 34 per cent of the 800MHz and 20 per cent of the 2.1GHz (3G) band were purchased, the Economic Times said.

As expected Vodafone was the top bidder, spending INR203 billion (about $3 billion) to expand its 4G coverage to 17 regions to close the gap on rivals Bharti Airtel and 4G newcomer Reliance Jio, which both have 4G spectrum in all of the country’s 22 service areas. Vodafone acquired 2×82.6MHz of FDD and 200MHz of TDD spectrum in the 1.8, 2.1 and 2.5GHz bands.

Vodafone Group last month injected more than $7 billion into its India subsidiary, reducing its debt by half and preparing it for the auction.

Airtel, the market leader, acquired spectrum in three bands (1.8, 2.1 and 2.3GHz) for INR142 billion, while Jio also picked up spectrum in three bands for INR137 billion. Jio said it acquired 15MHz (four regions) in the 800MHz band, 39.6MHz (eight regions) in the 1.8GHz band and 160MHz (16 regions) in the 2.3GHz band (unpaired) at a 6.5 per cent premium to the reserve prices.

The country’s third largest player Idea Cellular spent INR128 billion on 349MHz of spectrum in four bands to expand its mobile broadband footprint nationwide. It acquired 74.6MHz in the 1.8GHz and 2.1GHz bands (paired) and 200MHz in the 2.3GHz and 2.5GHz bands.

Its total spectrum holding increased to 890MHz, which Idea chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla said filled its spectrum coverage requirements, the Times reported. He said it paid less than a 1 per cent premium over the reserve price.

The weak demand for the 700MHz band was expected. The reserve price was set at INR11.5 billion per MHz, meaning a company would have to spend a minimum INR57.5 billion for a block of 5MHz. Operators and the GSMA had long urged the government to lower it.

Rajan Mathews, director general of COAI, said in a statement that it is hopeful the government and DoT will recalibrate the 700MHz price so that spectrum could be put up for auction, maybe in two years.