3G bidding - Is this the third & Last round of telco competition in India?

The DoT (Department of Telecom) will release a detailed information memorandum (IM) this week on the upcoming 3G auctions. As reported by economic times, the IM (information memorandum) to be released is likely to contains details regarding the billing schedule, qualifications of bidders, terms and conditions, payment schedules and other technical and commercial specifications that are critical to enable bidders to plan their auction strategy.

The DoT clarified that global telecom operators who do not operate in India are welcome to participate, though they will have to acquire a Unified Access Service Licence (UASL) to be eligible to bid. This implies some uncertainty for potential foreign bidders. At present, a pan-India UASL costs Rs 1,658 crore and comes bundled with 4.4 MHz of 2G spectrum. However, recent proposals to unbundle the licence from spectrum and to change its cost are still pending and could remain unresolved at the time India conducts its 3G auctions. This change is owing to a severe 2G spectrum crunch being faced in India with over 300 applicants waiting in queue for 24 months or more to get new spectrum/licences. DoT officials believe that global operators will be willing to join this queue, but given the fact that there is a shortage, the uncertainties relating to the cost and 2G spectrum availability may prove to be a deterrent. Any proposal to change the terms and conditions of licence has to be referred to the Trai and this usually involves a detailed process, including several consultations and Open House sessions with all stakeholders.

Domestic operators Bharti, Vodafone, Reliance, Tatas and Idea are expected to be the main players in the 3G auction ring. Nordic telecom giant Telenor, which recently secured 67% equity in Unitech Wireless is reported not to opt for a pan-India 3G licence but bid for a select few 3G circles. Aircel, Loop, Swan and Datacom may also place bids in some strategic circles.

The reserve price for pan-India 3G spectrum is pegged at Rs 3,500 crore. It is believed that given the limited number of slots, the government may be able to receive a price in the range of Rs 6,000 crore plus for each of the slots giving an additional revenue of Rs 25,000 crore to the exchequer for the current fiscal. The auction of third generation spectrum or airwaves, is likely to start this November. The EGoM has recently approved placing four slots of 5 MHz each in the 2.1 GHz band for auctions in 3G. If the auction is held in December as scheduled, it is highly likely that India will see four new 3G operators before the end of 2010.

To me this seems to be last round of competition between telcos in India. What I foresee is that after aggressive bidding for 3G licences, some of the operators will make huge losses. Then the consolidation phase will follow. By 2012 some of the players will start handling the batten - not to new players but to the one running in adjacent lanes.

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