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Crucial 900-MHz, 1800-MHz spectrum auction begins

Hot four-cornered fight for 900MHz expected between top three and new entrant Reliance Jio

India's Supreme Court has cleared today's auction of spectrum in the 900-MHz and 1,800-MHz bands, refusing to grant a stay on the proceedings. While admitting a petition of Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular against a Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) order that had rejected their plea for extension of licences, it denied the operators any interim relief.

The licences of Bharti and Vodafone are to expire this year, beginning with Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, while Idea's licences for seven of the nine circles where it is present will expire next year.

The companies' main argument was that they held 20-year licences (from 1994 to 2014) and had a "legitimate expectation" of continuing for another 10 years, according to licence terms. They also said they had invested huge amounts and built infrastructure that could not be matched by new entrants.

The apex court decision has removed the hurdle for the government's spectrum auction process and the telecom operators in the fray are expecting a fierce price battle for airwaves in the 900-MHz band, considered very efficient for data and voice services. According to them, the final price could be between 40 per cent and 70 per cent higher than the base price. Many of them have even readied a war chest to continue bidding up to these levels.

Entry of the Mukesh Ambani-controlled Reliance Jio in the race for 900-MHz spectrum is likely to play a spoiler for incumbents Bharti, Vodafone and Idea, as there will be a four-cornered contest for three slots that are up for grabs. Also, as one of these slots has lower quality of spectrum, the government has decided the allocation will depend on bidding price - the lowest bidder will get the low-quality slot.

For the 1,800-MHz, on the other hand, most telcos believe the price will not be much higher than the reserve price, except in some circles like Delhi and Mumbai.

Control over 900-MHz spectrum is important for Reliance Jio, as the 2,300-MHz airwaves, with which it plans to launch its 4G services, has lower indoor penetration. The number of towers and the capex required to rectify this is nearly double that will be needed with 900-MHz spectrum. According to an analyst, if the company combines airwaves in the 900-MHz and 2,300-MHz bands for its services, it could save about $1.5 billion in capex alone (on a pan-Indian basis)

Also, in the 2,300-MHz band, both voice over LTE and voice over IP still have many quality issues. The company could address this by going for a combination of 900-MHz and 1,800-MHz airwaves. With seamless service over the phone, subscribers could be switching among the three spectrum bands without knowing. "So, for instance, you could be on 2,300-MHz when out on the road and shift to 900-MHz when indoors," says a telecom company executive.

Spectrum in the 900-MHz spectrum has boosted the incumbent operators' average revenue per user (Arpu) in the Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata circles. For them, retaining airwaves in this band will part of their strategy. In the absence of this spectrum, the only choice for them will be bidding for 1800-MHz spectrum. Since the latter band is less efficient, they will have to install more towers. This will increase their capex requirement.

At present, Vodafone has up to eight MHz of 900-MHz spectrum in the Delhi and Mumbai circles and 6.2 MHz in the Kolkata circle. And, given the ernest money it has paid, it will want to retain at least five MHz.

Bharti Airtel has 900-MHz spectrum in Delhi and Kolkata, but not in Mumbai. According to analysts, this is one of the key reasons for the company lagging behind Vodafone in subscriber base in the city - Bharti's subscriber marketshare in Mumbai is 14.08 per cent, compared with Vodafone's 23.35 per cent.

Besides, like Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel could also get an edge in the data space by combining 900-MHz and 2,300-MHz airwaves - it already has 2,300-MHz spectrum in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata. It is also helped by the fact that Loop Mobile has decided not to participate in the auction. The dark horse, of course, could be Idea Cellular, which might want to pick up the more-efficient 900-MHz spectrum to consolidate its operations in the Delhi and Mumbai circles, where its share in subscriber base as of October 2013 was only 12.77 per cent and 11.11 per cent, respectively.

The government has already exceeded its Budget target of raising Rs 11,343 crore from the spectrum auction. It has already received more than Rs 11,500 crore in earnest money from the eight telecom operators that intend to bid

From Business Standard

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