In a major move to speed up 5G roll-out in the country, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) finally released its much-awaited recommendations on 5G spectrum pricing. TRAI recommended a 35-36 per cent reduction in the base price of 5G spectrum (3300-3670 MHz band), from Rs 4.92 billion suggested in 2018 to Rs 3.17 billion on a pan-India basis. However, it suggested that the time period for which the band is kept should be limited to 20 years, and if the airwaves are sold for 30 years, the base price should be multiplied by 1.5 times. Another key aspect of the recommendations was the introduction of mandatory roll-out obligations for 5G networks. Further, enterprises should be allowed to obtain spectrum on lease from carriers and establish their own isolated captive wireless, private network.
Post the release of the recommendations, the Digital Communications Commission (DCC), the highest decision-making body of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), accepted TRAI’s 5G spectrum pricing recommendations, dealing a big blow to telcos. However, the DCC decided not to allot spectrum directly to corporate entities for private 5G networks, as suggested by the regulator. Instead, they may partner with the licensed telcos, accepting a key demand of the operators. Further, the DCC had asked TRAI to clarify a number of its recommendations including auctioning spectrum for 20 or 30 years and if the crucial millimetre wave frequency in the 27.5-28.5 GHz band should be auctioned for 5G services. In response, TRAI has recently asked DoT to take a call on these two contentious issues, thereby throwing the ball in the government’s court. The industry is now awaiting the government’s final call on the 5G spectrum roadmap across the industry seem to be divided in their opinion on TRAI’s recommendations. While some were disappointed with the recommendations, others believed that it is a step in the right direction. tele.net presents the views of key industry stakeholders on various aspects of TRAI’s 5G spectrum recommendations…
Lt Gen. Dr S.P. Kochhar, Director General, COAI
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) is disappointed by TRAI’s recommendations on the auction of 5G spectrum bands. Given the recent seminal reforms in the telecom sector, these recommendations are one step backward than forward towards building a digitally connected India. The spectrum pricing recommended by TRAI is too high. Throughout the consultation process, the industry had presented extensive arguments, based on global research and benchmarks, for a significant reduction in spectrum prices. The industry recommended a 90 per cent lower price, and to see only 35-40 per cent reduction recommended by TRAI is deeply disappointing. Despite the government’s decision to allocate 5G spectrum for a period of 30 years, TRAI has decided to recommend reserve prices for 20 years and applied 1.5 times multiple to the price if spectrum is to be taken for 30 years. We urge TRAI to:
- Revisit its spectrum pricing recommendations. The industry strongly believes that there is enough and more headroom available to reduce spectrum prices by 90 per cent, in line with the global norms. TRAI must do away with the 1.5 times price multiple if spectrum allocation is for 30 years.
- Do away with the minimum roll-out obligations as this is a retrograde step. The industry must be empowered to decide its roll-out strategy once it has acquired spectrum at the said price.
- Disallow private enterprise networks for the financial viability and orderly growth of the telecom industry, which is more than capable of delivering these services to businesses.
T.V. Ramachandran, President, BIF
These are one of the most holistic, far-sighted and balanced recommendations in the past 25 years of the Indian telecom industry. The Broadband India Forum (BIF) compliments the authority on having crafted the recommendations with an eye on consumer benefits, adoption of technology and continued reforms for the benefit of all. When implemented in policy, these recommendations would enable India to showcase the early adoption of 5G across several different verticals – be it healthcare, education, manufacturing, or more, and extract its manifold benefits therein. We cannot afford to stay behind the rest of the world, and this is an opportunity for India to catch up on 5G through private networks.
Bharat Bhatia, President, IAFI
The ITU-APT Foundation of India (IAFI) appreciates TRAI’s 5G spectrum recommendations to DoT. We are extremely pleased with a 50 per cent cut in the reserve price for the 700 MHz band and a 35 per cent reserve price of mid-band 5G spectrum in the 3.3-3.7 GHz band from the previous TRAI recommendations. However, even now, the reserve prices are much higher than what IAFI had recommended in its comments to TRAI consultation. IAFI is also pleased with TRAI’s acceptance of our proposal for Option B1 for the new 600 MHz of 40+40 MHz, an IAFI recommendation that was already accepted by the Asia Pacific Telecommunity, the Asia-Pacific regional telecom organisation, at its 29th AWG meeting in March 2022. However, IAFI would have liked the reserve price of the 600 MHz band to be somewhat lower than that of the 700 MHz band due to extensive ecosystem availability for the 700 MHz 3GPP band 28.
Ankit Jain, Assistant Vice President and Sector Head, Corporate Ratings, ICRA Limited
TRAI has recommended spectrum auctions with one of the largest quanta of spectrum on offer (more than 100,000 MHz). A lot of new bands, viz, 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 3300-3600 MHz and 28 GHz bands, have also entered the spectrum auction process. They contribute more than 80 per cent of the total value of spectrum to be put to auctions. The reserve prices have been materially revised downwards by 35-40 per cent from the last spectrum auction. Despite this, the total spectrum on offer at reserve price is valued at around Rs 5 trillion for 20 years. Even with a modest participation in this auction, improvement in cash flow generation post the tariff hikes as well as the deleveraging initiatives undertaken by telcos, the debt levels of the industry are likely to elevate further to Rs 4.8 trillion by March 2023. For financial year 2023, the Government of India had budgeted around Rs 528 billion as non-tax receipts from the telecom sector, of which it is estimated that around Rs 260 billion is from the upfront payment of auctions proposed in the current fiscal.
Ankit Agarwal, Managing Director, STL
Every penny saved in the spectrum auction can be used to deliver an enhanced customer experience. Initial estimates suggested a 35 per cent reduction in spectrum pricing. This is a welcome move and will play a pivotal role in bringing the country closer to its 5G dream. This will enable service providers to spend their additional capital expenditure and launch new-age services and business models. The lower budgetary obligation for spectrum will allow the telecom operators to strengthen their fibre penetration in backhaul infrastructure, bolster the initiatives around building broadband highways, connecting rural areas, and investing in open radio access network – all essential prerequisites for 5G and a truly connected country. The introduction of new bands and telecom innovation centres will further boost 5G use cases and applications in various sectors.