Why Ravi Shankar Prasad needs to junk TRAI’s proposals on the 700 band auction price

Not auctioning the 700MHz band is easy for Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, but if more 1800MHz spectrum is not made available through early harmonisation, this will ensure that even top players will not be able to offer 4G services on a pan-India basis

ravi shankar prasad
Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, with the rolling out of the new bill payment service, the CSC network will create an employment of around 2 lakh jobs, even if one person is employed to collect bills in each of the centre. (PTI)

sunil jainNot auctioning the 700MHz band is easy for Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, but if more 1800MHz spectrum is not made available through early harmonisation, this will ensure that even top players will not be able to offer 4G services on a pan-India basis

Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad would do well to take a close look at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommendations on spectrum pricing since, in their current form, they make little sense and, in fact, will prevent players like Vodafone and Idea from offering 4G services on a pan-India basis. This newspaper has already written on how the price recommended for 700MHz spectrum band is irrationally high – buying all 35MHz on offer at even the reserve price will cost over Rs 400,000 crore as compared to the Rs 290,000 crore that the government has mopped up in five auctions since 2010.

More important, there is no reasonable rationale for why the 700 band is valued at almost double that for 800MHz spectrum band, especially when the propagation properties of both bands are not too different and, most important, while there are several reasonably-priced phones available in the 800 band, there are just a few high-priced devices for the 700 band – in other words, the 800 band is a better one to buy today; the 700 band will take a few years to mature, which is why most telecom operators were in favour of holding back on the 700 band auction.

The recommendation, it appears, is based on one made by the Trai way back in 2012 – this said the 700 band should be priced at 4 times that of the 1800 band – and has been accepted by Trai in 2016 “in absence of any other better approach”. Actually, there was a better approach since the auction last year had given a value for the 800 band spectrum (around Rs 5,400 crore per MHz) and the 700 band could have been put at around that level.

It turns out, analysts point out, the 2012 recommendations by Trai weren’t that scientific either. Trai used the auction prices of 700 and 1800 bands in various European countries and then applied this same formula to India. First, as has just been pointed out, there was no reason to apply some European formula when an auction in India had given results. But, even this was not applied properly. While Trai used a factor of 4, this differed from 28.5 in Germany to 3.1 in Italy, 1.4 in Portugal and 1.8 in Sweden. Why didn’t Trai take the German number or the Italian or the Portuguese one? If you take the average of all – and there is really no scientific reason for doing even this – you come to a value of 2.8. How, and why, Trai chose a number of 4 is a mystery, and Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad would do well to ask Trai for an explanation for this.

Apart from the fact that a regulator cannot just put a price on the basis of a whim, the high price has serious repercussions. Firms like Vodafone, for instance, have enough spectrum to offer 4G services in just 4-5 states, apart from the lucrative markets of Delhi and Mumbai. In such a situation, Vodafone may still have bid for 700 band if the price was reasonable, but at this price, it would be suicidal.

Fortunately, after the protest that the move would benefit primarily one non-incumbent operator (RJio), Trai has given up on its earlier proposals to club all sub-1GHz spectrum into one band, and do the same for the 2300 and 2500 bands. Right now, there is an overall cap of 25% which means no telco can own more than a fourth of all spectrum across all bands. In addition, there is a 50% band cap for each individual band such as the 800 one, or the 900 one, and so on.

Kotak Institutional Equities has a good explanation for what would have happened had all the sub-1GHZ bands been clubbed for purposes of the 50% cap. There is roughly 35MHz of spectrum in the 700 band, 15 in the 800 band and 20 in the 900 band – which means that no telco can hold more than 17.5, 7.5 and 10MHz of any of the bands. Put them together – that’s 70MHz of spectrum – and any one telco can theoretically own all the spectrum in the 700 band or all the spectrum in the 800 and 900 bands.

Relaxing the caps, as this newspaper has argued, is a good thing since higher amounts of spectrum lead to large efficiencies in usage and lower costs dramatically. Also, if an operator has more spectrum in the same band, as opposed to across bands, the costs of electronics also reduce significantly. The problem, however, is that this can’t be done half way through a process since five auctions have already taken place under the earlier rules.

What’s been done in the latest recommendation, however, is quite similar in the sense of being arbitrary. Just 40MHz of spectrum has been auctioned in the 2300 band, of which half is with RJio. Since another 20MHz is to be auctioned in 2016, RJio can’t buy any of this – the bids are in blocks of 20MHz, so were RJio to win, it would have 40MHz and thus violate the 50% cap. By now recommending that auctions in the 2300 band take place in blocks of 10MHz instead of 20MHz, RJio can participate in the auction. Once again, a telco being able to get more spectrum in a band is a good thing, but if one tweak can help an RJio, another tweak can be done to help a Bharti Airtel and a third can be done to help a Vodafone or an Idea.

With the Trai having made its recommendations, it is up to Prasad to help fix the sector as he has over a period of time – from ensuing 15MHz of 2100 band spectrum was released for commercial use by the defence ministry to clearing spectrum trading and sharing norms that were stuck for years. Apart from the fact that Prasad needs to take another look at the caps across all bands, he needs to augment spectrum supplies.

Deciding not to auction the 700 band will be easy, but what is needed is more spectrum. Prasad has been pushing for harmonization of the 1800 band – this can release around 2 carriers of 5MHz each across most circles in the country – but this has got stuck for some reason; he needs to push it again. He also needs to relook the high 13% charges for license/spectrum fees since telcos are paying such huge entry costs and scrap the 1% SUC for BWA spectrum (this is the one part of the Prashant Bhushan PIL that makes sense). Above all, he needs to explain to the Trai – and the nation – that the TRAI’s method of last-auction-bid-equals-next-auction-reserve-price is a recipe for disaster since it locks India’s telcos in a death spiral of higher and higher prices. The telcos certainly cannot afford it – without a significant hike in user charges which, in turn, hits Digital India – and if they go belly up, chances are the PSU banks that have lent to them will also be in trouble.

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