However, bigger players like Bharti Airtel will also be hit by the new spectrum pricing, even though it obtained its 2G spectrum in earlier allocations, as it may be asked to pay a one-time charge for excess spectrum holding. The firm will also be subject to the new spectrum pricing once its licenses come up for renewal from 2014/2015.
However, at least the final decision is at the low end of the range of 140 billion to 160 billion rupees recommended by a group of ministers last month – a group which itself cut the 180 billion sensationally suggested by regulator TRAI, and which provoked a storm of protest from operators. The base price for CDMA spectrum in 800-MHz is set slightly higher at 182 billion rupees.
The new prices are still many times higher than those charged when the GSM spectrum was originally sold in a “first come, first served” auction in 2008. Those licenses were cancelled by the Supreme Court in February, amid accusations of a corrupt and unconstitutional process which prompted the resignation of the Telecoms Minister of the time.
Current minister, Kapil Sibal, said the government has allowed “liberal payment norms” for the auction to ensure that either local or foreign players can participate. Carriers can pay license fees in installments and the spectrum usage charge will be kept at between 3% and 8% of operator revenues. The auctions are due to commence on August 31, though many expect this Supreme Court deadline to slip.
Carriers will now have to decide whether to take part. Some will be rebidding for licenses they previously bought in 2008 – and a few of those have even launched commercial services. One of those was Telenor's joint venture Uninor.
A Telenor spokesperson told Reuters: “We register that the auction starting price is lower than the recommended amount, but we need to look very carefully at the details of this new recommendation and make a proper decision based on facts before we decide.”
Others were more outspoken. Idea Cellular’s managing director, Himanshu Kapania, said the reserve price “does not present a viable business case”. Telenor has already written down its remaining fixed and intangible assets in India amounting to $680 million (€553 million) in value, and is looking to break the ties with joint venture partner Unitech. The proposed auction of the JV's assets was initially blocked, then green-lighted, and has now stalled again. Telenor wants to seek buyers for its 67% stake despite objections from Unitech.
The markets did not all react well either. Credit ratings agency Fitch said the pricing would drive consolidation, which has actually been a goal of Indian telecoms policy given the impractical number of 2G cellcos, but which would also drive up tariffs. Fitch believes India can sustain six profitable cellcos at most. It expects many of the telcos whose licenses were cancelled not to participate in the resale because of pressure on balance sheets and continuing regulatory uncertainty, especially as spectrum usage charges had not been reduced.
Three smaller operators - Etisalat, Videocon and Swan Telecom - have already exited the market, while the Indian ventures of Telenor and Sistema are likely to pull out partially or entirely. The fifth and sixth largest private cellcos, subsidiaries of Tata and Maxis, may merge to strengthen their position against the bigger players – Bharti, Vodafone, Idea and Reliance, which are also moving ahead rapidly now in 3G.