Spectrum auction nets INR778bn, but 700MHz spectrum left unsold for second time

3 Mar 2021

India’s mass spectrum auction, which saw the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) put up for sale a total of 2,308MHz of airwaves across seven bands, has ended after just two days, with the government netting INR778.15 billion (USD10.6 billion) – well below the reserve price of INR3.92 trillion for the total available spectrum – with around two-thirds of the available spectrum left unsold. As anticipated, the trio of bidders – Reliance Jio Infocomm (Jio), Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea (Vi) – steered clear of the 700MHz band, marking the second time that the government has failed to sell the sought-after airwaves by overpricing the spectrum. The operators also avoided the 2500MHz band, whilst just 15MHz of the 175MHz available in the 2100MHz band was sold. The Economic Times writes that Jio purchased the most spectrum, paying INR571.23 billion for 488.35MHz, focusing primarily on renewing its 800MHz licences alongside frequencies in the 1800MHz and 2300MHz bands. Airtel paid the next largest amount, with INR186.99 billion for a total of 355.45MHz across the 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz and 2300MHz bands. Vi, meanwhile, purchased just 11.8MHz of spectrum in the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands for a total of INR19.93 billion. With the high reserve prices set by the regulators and the substantial debt burden on the industry, bidding matched expectations, with the trio focused on renewals and consolidating their positions in the bands they already utilised.

The poor showing is unlikely to lead to a change of policy for the next attempt to sell the frequencies, however, with the DoT seemingly casting the auction as a success, comparing it favourably to the previous tender in 2016: ‘ In the 2016 spectrum auction, where there were seven bidders, the spectrum sold was 41% by quantity and 12% by value of the total spectrum put to auction. The corresponding figures in the 2021 spectrum auction are 37% and 19% respectively, with three participants.’ Indeed, Telecom Secretary Anshu Prakash was quoted as saying that the 700MHz band could be sold in a future auction if the development of the 5G ecosystem increases the demand for the airwaves.