Spectrum Auctions Could Mean Big Trouble for India Mobile Firms

Posting a huge operating loss of 3,100 million Norwegian Krone (around Rs 2,530 crore) for its India mobile business, Telenor executives warned that they would exit the Indian market if it was unable to secure new spectrum at reasonable rates.

At the same time, the Indian arm of Telenor looks to expand 4G footprint and said it would offer the lowest tariff for these services as part of its affordable pricing strategy.

“We are not able to compete with the current spectrum portfolio we have in the growing data market,” Telenor global CEO Sigve Brekke said. But Brekke also emphasized that the additional spectrum would have to be available at “a price that we can justify.”

Some fear widespread damage to mobile company business models if most of the spectrum India plans to auction later in 2016 is sold at or above present minimum prices.

That spectrum auction involves a huge amount of spectrum, and might prove problematic, for traditional and new reasons.

On one hand, the auction will release up to 2,000 MHz of spectrum, across a wide range of frequencies useful for communications purposes.

The problem is that some observers believe the service providers cannot possibly afford to buy all that spectrum, at suggested prices.

Some speculate that sold spectrum--assuming virtually everything is purchased--will amount to about US$83 billion, increasing mobile service provider debt loads as much as 185 percent.

At such levels, the auctions would represent more than 25 percent of the country's national budget for the financial year 2016-17, and more than double the combined revenues generated (around $38 billion) by all telecom companies during the financial year 2014-15.

In fact, of the projected $85 billion in potential revenues, the sale of 700 MHz spectrum alone is estimated to represent around $64 billion. It would not be unheard of for some spectrum to remain unsold whenever an auction is held.

It is possible the proposed spectrum auction in India might result in quite a lot of the spectrum, even desirable spectrum, remaining unsold.

Spectrum deemed useful both for coverage (700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz) and capacity (1,800 MHz, 2,100 MHz, 2,300 MHz and 2,500 MHz) now are scheduled for sale.

To the extent that spectrum constraints contribute to call drop problems, the new capacity will help. But observers now warn that minimum prices are set at high levels, implying high prices for purchased spectrum.

In fact, some mobile service providers have called for postponing at least some parts of the auction, altogether.

Excessive prices been a problem in the mobile industry before. Overpayments for 3G spectrum nearly bankrupted a number of tier-one service providers in Europe, for example.

Business model stress might be a big problem in the wake of the auctions. For Telenor, it could mean selling its business.
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