On February 9, 2018, the Department of Telecommunications in India announced plans to auction more than 3GHz of spectrum across the 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 2300MHz, 2500MHz, 3300MHz-3400MHz, and 3400MHz-3600MHz bands. Much of the spectrum will be 5G-suitable, and usable once the standardization process is completed in 2020.
The ministry will need to set appropriate reserve prices to avoid past mistakes that saw spectrum remain unsold
This will be the largest spectrum sale in India since 2016, when 2.3GHz of frequencies were up for auction but more than half of the spectrum remained unsold. This will be something the ministry will be keen to avoid this time around. During the 2016 auction, operators complained that the reserve prices for certain frequencies, such as the 700MHz band, were too high (at INR4tn) for the entire holding, resulting in no interest from bidders. Instead, operators focused their attention on the 1800MHz, 2100MHz, and 2300MHz bands on offer in the multispectrum auction in an effort to bolster their 4G-compatible spectrum holdings.Crucially, this time around, the ministry has requested recommendations on pricing for the spectrum auction from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in an attempt to set the reserves at more reasonable levels.
India was slow in the development of both 3G and 4G technologies, which meant the country was not involved in setting standards, and 4G continues to be at a nascent stage. This is why operators were also keener to bolster their 4G spectrum holdings in 2016. Mistakes of the past also led to delayed 3G and 4G deployments. Auctioning such large amounts of spectrum is therefore certainly a step in the right direction this time, particularly as the progression of 5G was stalled somewhat when the 700MHz band remained unsold in 2016. However, 5G technology will need to be supported not only by large amounts of spectrum but also contiguous frequencies, so the ministry will also need to ensure that the lots are packaged appropriately.
Ultimately, this auction will ensure that operators are able to meet the government targets set out in the National Telecom Policy in 2017 to reach ubiquitous coverage of 10Gbps across urban areas and 1Gbps across rural areas. There are also intermediate goals of 20Mbps for wireless, and 50Mbps for fixed internet connectivity, in the country by 2022. This is very ambitious, particularly considering that in the first quarter 2017, the average broadband speed in India was only 6.5Mbps.
Spectrum Requirements for 5G, TE0007-001111 (February 2017)
"Committee shows ambition as it aims to make India 5G-ready by 2020”, TE0007-001192 (October 2017)
Sarah McBride, Analyst, Regulation