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India planning 5G auction despite operator struggles

The government of India is aiming to sell 5G spectrum at auction this year in frequencies above 3GHz, along with spectrum in seven bands that went unsold in last year’s mammoth auction.

India conducted its biggest ever spectrum auction last October, and while it added $9.8 billion to the government’s coffers, this fell way short of expectations. The government had expected the available spectrum in just the highly efficient 700MHz band to generate INR4 trillion ($59 billion), but it attracted no bids due to reserve prices that were considered unreasonably high.

The government has indicated that airwaves in the 3.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands would be available in a 5G auction, and that the Telecom Ministry would liaise with regulator TRAI (Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India) to confirm this once it had conducted a review. It has not confirmed how much spectrum would be made available in either band.

Airwaves in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1,800MHz, 2,100MHz, 2,300MHz and 2,500MHz bands that went unsold in October’s auction – constituting 60% of the spectrum up for grabs - will also be put back on the block. The 700MHz and 900MHz bands in particular are highly efficient, but high reserve prices deterred bidders and they remained unsold.

While the government is eager to sell off as much spectrum as possible, operators are far less enthusiastic, struggling with rising levels of debt and fierce price wars following the entry of market debutante Reliance Jio in September. The newcomer operator has offered free voice and data, racking up 100M subscribers in just five months.

Credit ratings agency Moody’s warned that auctions could have a heavy impact on already struggling operators. Moody’s VP and senior credit officer Annalisa Di Chiara said: “These spectrum wins will weigh on balance sheets and cash flows, as debt levels will rise materially for most operators. The operators will experience a reduction in their ability to fund further expansion or to absorb the effects of weaker profitability as competition intensifies.”

India’s market leaders are feeling the strain, with Airtel noting a tumble in profits for its fiscal third quarter, and Idea registering its first ever quarterly net loss.