Important to learn lessons from February’s auction
If telcos Bharti Airtel and Vodafone have bid aggressively not just to retain part of their 900 MHz spectrum, but have also bought significant amounts of 1800 MHz spectrum, the reason goes beyond the need to protect their existing customer base. Since 5 MHz of 900 MHz spectrum is the minimum size required for offering data services, both have bid for this amount in Delhi—they have also bid for 7-8 MHz in the 1800 MHz band to migrate their existing voice customers, leaving the 900 MHz band free for offering pure data services. Both have 3G spectrum for data services in Delhi, but data services are growing by leaps and bounds while growth in subscriber minutes for voice has levelled off from 54% in FY09 to 9% in FY13 across the country. For Bharti Airtel, ‘data’ subscribers have risen from 35.8 million in September 2011 to 54.4 million in December 2013. Their average data usage has shot up from 107 MB to 249 MB in the same period and average revenues per user from R44 to R75—in just the last five quarters, the share of ‘data’ as a proportion of mobile revenues rose from 4.9% to 10.3%.
However, if customer tariffs don’t start rising, the value destruction will be huge. While tariffs have been rising over the past few quarters, Reliance Jio coming in will put a cap to the price hike, as will the fact that existing players like Idea are getting more aggressive—few expected Idea to bid for the 900 MHz band, for instance, given its high cost. Were last week’s auctions a one-time event, it would be one thing but, over the next few years, there will be several 900 MHz licenses that will come up for auction. And in a constrained supply situation, auction prices will simply zoom—there is very little 1800 MHz spectrum left, suggesting the supply constraint is going to get worse. Kotak Institutional Equities, for instance, has assumed the prices for future 900 MHz auctions will be double of the 1800 MHz bids in the current auctions—this is true of Delhi and Mumbai, but in Kolkata the difference was 2.7 times. Even this reduces the value of Bharti Airtel’s shares by 8.5% and a little over 24% in the case of Idea.
Augmenting spectrum supplies is critical and while getting the defence ministry to vacate spectrum is an obvious area to work on, there are interim solutions. Getting BSNL/MTNL to vacate the 3G spectrum they are doing little with is one such. Another is to swap the unutilised 15 MHZ of spectrum the DoT already has in the 1900 MHz band—this is of no commercial significance—with the defence ministry for spectrum in the 2100 MHz or 3G band. Since the downlink for this spectrum is already with the DoT, the swap will release an additional 15 MHz of valuable 3G spectrum. So, when auctions take place for the 900 MHz, telcos have the option of buying 3G spectrum in case prices shoot up too much. Failing this, telecom’s value destruction is set to increase further.