Spectrum: the great industry divider

First published on Mobile World Live, 23 April 2013

Spectrum allocation is one of the most divisive issues in the mobile industry. Regulators – armed with proposals on how wireless frequencies should be auctioned, re-assigned or re-farmed – invariably get flak from some quarter.

Hardly surprising. Rules about how a finite resource should be divvied up are unlikely to please everyone. In some ways, regulators – dare I say it – are easy targets. Their job is made tougher when there’s pressure from national government to squeeze out as much cash as possible from selling spectrum.

We’ve already seen comparatively high reserve prices in the struggling Eurozone economies of Greece, Ireland and Spain. India, too, bumped up minimum bids for this year’s auction of 2G spectrum. (No coincidence, surely, that India’s overall budget deficit runs at a worryingly high 8-10 per cent of GDP.)

That said, while high reserve prices can be painful for operators, I’m not sure if it’s a definite trend. There are other national regulators, with government support, that take a longer-term, socio-economic perspective.

If spectrum is cheaper, the argument is made that consumers – and the wider economy – will benefit from more 4G investment and cheaper prices. Finland is a good example of this type of thinking, while the Czech regulator, CTU, took the unusual step last month of scrapping the country’s 4G auction because prices were spiralling too high.

What’s more, the UK’s Ofcom – arguably an influential regulator in international circles – stoutly defended the outcome of the recent 800MHz and 2.6GHz auction after an investigation was launched by the National Audit Office to see if more money could have been raised. The UK regulator said the auction was primarily designed to promote competition and ensure coverage. “These benefits will deliver significantly more value in the long term to the UK than simply the revenue raised in the auction,” said Ofcom in a statement.

Room for improvement

Encouraging as these examples might be for operators, there is perhaps a general sense – not altogether unjustified – that regulators could do a better job at handling wireless frequencies.

For one thing, operators typically don’t like buying spectrum piecemeal. It’s usually better for long-term business planning if bidding across different frequency bands can be co-ordinated simultaneously.

In this respect, the ‘big bang’ auction in Germany, completed May 2010 – in which wireless frequencies from various frequency bands were put under the hammer at the same time – was a step in the right direction. Even so, there were still some EU countries that subsequently opted to auction 800MHz and 2.6GHz separately. Austria and France spring to mind here.

Renewal of ‘2G’ licences in the 900MHz and 1800MHz frequency bands has often proven messy too. I’ve heard more than one 900MHz licence holder, in different countries, complain about not knowing how to value 800MHz spectrum in an upcoming auction simply because they didn’t know what would happen to their existing 900MHz licences coming up for renewal.

This summer, discussions between Ofcom, the government and the UK’s 900MHz and 1800MHz licence holders are due to start about re-setting annual fees. An increase seems fair as these frequencies can now be used for 3G and 4G. (Ofcom has said it would look favourably on requests to use 900MHz for 4G, while EE already as an LTE service up and running in the 1800MHz frequency band.)

The mechanism for calculating the new rates, however, has yet to be finalised. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a consultancy, nonetheless believes that the combined annual payments on 900MHz and 1800MHz licences could jump tenfold, to £600 million. The PwC estimate is based on Ofcom’s draft proposals and a recent 4G spectrum auction in the Netherlands.

If UK Treasury officials are rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of a boost to government coffers, operators will no doubt be wringing theirs in exasperation.

Given that these annual fees (as far as I understand it) will stretch for at least another 15 years, spectrum prices may well come down as digital dividend spectrum in the 700MHz frequency band becomes available. (A resolution passed at last year’s World Radiocommunications Conference paves the way for 700MHz to be used for mobile broadband services in Europe, Africa and the Middle East). Any pricing mechanism, then, that linked annual fees for 900MHz and 1800MHz licences to a recent auction looks flawed.

Richard Feasey, public policy director for Vodafone Group Services, argued convincingly in a white paper last year that New Zealand’s approach to spectrum renewal had much to commend it. There, the existing holders of mobile spectrum have a right of first refusal to renew the licence at a price determined by the government. If the operator disagrees with the price, it is then obliged to place the spectrum in an auction.

But spectrum renewal is still a tricky business. The interests of established but newer players – with no 2G spectrum to re-farm – have still to be taken into account.

AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson argued at this year’s Mobile World Congress that the US practice of selling large swathes of spectrum to operators, in perpetuity – rather than for fixed-length periods as is done in Europe – encourages long-term investment. He’s got a point.

On the back foot

But no matter how much operators complain about spectrum costs and conditions, their negotiating hand is not always a strong one. That’s simply because they usually need more wireless frequencies if they are to grow their business.

This was starkly seen in Brazil last year. The country’s operators had expressed fears that the proposed 4G spectrum auction by Anatel, the country’s regulator, was too soon after the award of 3G licences and to invest now in a more advanced technology did not allow enough time for a 3G return.

Wanting to get mobile broadband networks ready in time for Brazil’s hosting of the Confederations Cup this year, followed by the World Cup in 2014, Anatel ignored the protests and went ahead with the auction anyway. Operators, eager to get hold of the extra spectrum – and despite their misgivings – ended up paying more than analysts expected in the auction, coughing up $1.3 billion.

Spectrum is indeed a tough game.

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