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2G Auction: This Time Focus Is On Mumbai, Delhi

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After a brief lull, Indian telecom operators are getting set for the next round of auctions in the 900/1800MHz and 800MHz bands starting 11 March. Unlike the November auctions, where there was no bidding activity in Delhi and Mumbai, this time round the focus will be in the two metropolises. These circles will see bidding for 15MHz (12 blocks of 1.25MHz) of spectrum each in both the 900MHz and the 1800MHz bands.

The 900MHz auctions could ensure that the government comes close to its Rs 40,000-crore target from telecom auctions this fiscal. At the base price alone, the 900MHz in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata will yield Rs 25,317 crore. With the Rs 9,407 crore the government has already received from the November auctions, it works out to a neat Rs 34,724 crore. Even if operators pay just a third, it works out to Rs 11, 575 crore this fiscal.

While the 900MHz band is part of the re-farming exercise, the 1800MHz spectrum is on offer since there were no bidders in the November 2012 auctions. Since then, the government has reduced the base prices by 30 per cent. Also on offer is 12.5 MHz (10 blocks) of 900MHz spectrum in Kolkata and 13.75MHz (11blocks each) of 1800MHz spectrum in Karnataka and Rajasthan which did not get bidders in November.

Activity in Delhi and Mumbai is assured as licences in these circles are up for renewal in end-2014. For operators who are looking to renew their licences — in the 900MHz band — there is not much of an option. It remains to be seen if there are any new bidders. The base price for one block of 1.25MHz of 900 band spectrum in Delhi is Rs 970.3 crore. It is Rs 949.8 crore for Mumbai and Rs 227.4 crore for Kolkata.

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So will there be bids at this price? The incumbents —  Vodafone, Bharti Airtel and Loop Mobile — need to bid to retain the 900MHz spectrum. Currently Vodafone has 8MHz of 900 band spectrum in all three cities; Bharti Airtel has 8MHz in Delhi and 6.2MHz in Kolkata while Loop Mobile has 8MHz in Mumbai. Says a telecom industry official: “Bharti and Vodafone do not have much of a choice. They need to bid, since these are key circles for them.”

But there are still issues over the lowered base price for 1800MHz spectrum. An industry official argues that if the price of 800MHz could be lowered by 50 per cent since there were no bidders, then the same should apply to 1800MHz. Some operators are planning to approach DoT for redressal soon. Telewings (the joint venture of Norway’s Telenor and Sudhir Valia's Lakshdeep Investments & Finance Pvt Ltd) could emerge as one of the bidders for 1800MHz band spectrum in Mumbai. Says Hemant Joshi, partner, Deloitte, Haskins & Sells: “We are in a very unpredictable situation as the sector is stressed, balance sheets are over-leveraged and on top of it is policy uncertainty. In such a situation, it remains to be seen whether there is a business case at the reduced base price.”

Meanwhile, the 800MHz band is likely to see selective bidding by Sistema Shyam Teleservices Ltd. As things stand it looks unlikely that SSTL will go in for nationwide bidding, but could focus on a handful of high-income circles.

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