Explained | Why are telecom companies upset with TRAI despite its proposal to cut spectrum prices by 40%?

Why has the spectrum price been cut?  

Updated - April 17, 2022 05:04 pm IST

Published - April 17, 2022 12:44 am IST

The COAI maintained that the spectrum pricing recommended by TRAI is too high.

The COAI maintained that the spectrum pricing recommended by TRAI is too high. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The story so far: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) this week released recommendations on auction of spectrum, including those likely to be used for offering 5G services. The telecom regulator has suggested cutting prices of airwaves across various bands by 35-40% from its earlier proposed base price. However, the Cellular Operators Association of India, whose members include the three private telcos, Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea, has expressed disappointment, given the industry’s demand for a 90% reduction in the prices.

What are the key recommendations?

The telecom regulator has recommended that all available spectrum in the existing bands — 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 2300 MHz, 2500 MHz — should be put up for auction, along with airwaves in new bands such as 600 MHz, 3300-3670 MHz and 24.25-28.5 GHz. In all, more than 1,00,000 MHz of airwaves have been recommended to be put up for auction. The total spectrum on offer at reserve price is valued at about ₹5 lakh crore for 20 years.

For the 3300-3670 MHz band, which has emerged as the prime spectrum for 5G and is likely to be used for deploying 5G in India, the all-India reserve price has been lowered by about 35.5% to ₹317 crore/MHz, from ₹492 crore/MHz recommended earlier. Similarly, the reserve price for the premium 700 MHz band, which saw no takers in the previous auction, has been cut by 40% to ₹3,927 crore/MHz, from about ₹6,568 crore/MHz.

TRAI has determined the reserve price for spectrum bands based on a 20-year spectrum holding period. The reserve price for the increase in spectrum holding period to 30 years would be 1.5x the recommended reserve price for 20 years.

It has also recommended several options for the uptake of Captive Wireless Private Networks (CWPNs), including private networks through telcos, independent isolated network in an enterprise’s premises using telcos’ spectrum, allowing enterprise to take spectrum on lease from telcos or directly from Department of Telecom (DoT) to establish their own isolated captive private networks. TRAI also suggested that enterprises may obtain the spectrum directly from the government and establish their own isolated CWPN.

Why has the price been cut?

Given the financial stress in the sector, the government had in November, written to the regulator emphasising the need to strike a balance between generating revenue and the sustainability of the telecom sector in a way that telecom service providers are in good health with sufficient capacities to make regular and substantial capital expenditure for transitioning to 5G technology. It had also highlighted that spectrum lying idle was a waste for the economy.

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Further, in the last spectrum auction, held in March 2021, only 37.1% of the spectrum put to auction was acquired by the telecom services providers, largely due to high prices.

“The inputs received by the Authority during the consultation process also point to the need for further rationalisation of the reserve price,” the regulator said in the recommendation running to more than 400 pages.

In its recommendations, the regulator has asserted that the “valuation exercise (and the setting of the reserve prices) is grounded in a techno-economic methodology that is time-tested. The valuation is intended to elicit spectrum prices that encourage buyers to procure radio frequencies in different bands, while at the same time ensuring that bidders are discouraged from collusive behaviour.”

Why are the telcos unhappy?

The telecom services providers have via the industry body COAI expressed disappointment with TRAI’s recommendations for auction of 5G spectrum bands.

Explained | How much did the government earn from the 2021 spectrum auction?

In a strongly worded reaction, COAI called the recommendation a “step backwards” than forward towards building a digitally connected India.

COAI maintained that the spectrum pricing recommended by TRAI was too high, and noted that throughout the consultation process, the industry had presented extensive arguments based on global research and benchmarks, for significant reduction in spectrum prices. “Industry recommended 90% lower price, and to see only about 35-40% reduction recommended in prices, therefore is deeply disappointing,” it said.

It added that charging a 1.5x price for spectrum for a 30-year period will nullify the relief provided by the Union Cabinet in 2021. The industry body pointed out that by introducing mandatory rollout obligations for 5G networks without factoring the huge cost of such a rollout, TRAI has “delinked itself from reality and is running counter to the Government’s efforts of enhancing ease of doing business”.

On allowing private captive networks for enterprises, COAI argued that TRAI was dramatically altering the industry dynamics and hurting the financial health of the industry rather than improving it. Private networks disincentivise the telecom industry to invest in networks and continue paying high levies and taxes, it contended.

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