Last week the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) announced a value-for-money study of Ofcom’s CCA format spectrum auction, with the presumptions that it should have raised more money. Last week the US Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division made a submission to the FCC, questioning whether spectrum auctions deliver the greatest societal value. In March 2013, the Czech Telecommunication Officer (CTO) cited “excessively high” spectrum prices as the main reason for the cancellation of a spectrum auction. While these events come from three different angles, they in effect question whether auctions are the best method of allocating spectrum to mobile operators. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of spectrum auctions?
Let’s start with a fundamental argument against spectrum auctions. Last week the US Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division made an Ex Parte Submission to the FCC In the Matter of Policies Regarding Mobile Spectrum Holdings. “The Department believes that a set of well-defined, competition-focused rules for spectrum acquisitions, particularly in auctions, would best serve the dual goals of putting spectrum to use quickly and promoting consumer welfare in wireless markets.” The Anti-Trust Division of the DoJ is concerned with competition thus it strives to prevent the emergence of monopolies or oligopolies to ensure that end-users benefit from competitive markets. The DoJ previously voiced its concern with regards to spectrum auctions but it is not the first to realise the potentially negative effects of auctions.
Policy makers believed that market based allocation through competitive auctions were the best method to allocate spectrum in as much they would generate greatest societal benefit. When all bidders are equal, a spectrum auction may well be preferable to a beauty contest style spectrum allocation which lacks objectivity and transparency. It is in that sense that spectrum auctions played a useful role while the wireless industry went through its growth phase.
Auctions are said to be economically efficient if they allocate spectrum to the bidder who places the highest private value on the spectrum. Economic efficiency assumes that the bidder who generates the highest private value also generates the highest social value. If the two diverge then the outcome is not efficient as it is the maximisation of social value that is critical to efficiency. The bidder with the highest private value may therefore not necessarily be the bidder who generates the highest social value.
Coleago has carried out many spectrum valuations projects and a key task is to identify the sources of spectrum value. In many cases the largest source of value was the “blocking value”, i.e. the value to the bidder of keeping out a new entrant or preventing a smaller competitor from acquiring sufficient spectrum resources to compete effectively in the mobile broadband market. The DoJ refers to this as the “foreclosure value” as distinct from “use value”. Regulators are often desperate to prevent this and may set aside spectrum for new entrants (e.g. AWS in Canada, 2008), try to ensure that recent new entrants survive (e.g. 800MHz auction in France, 2010), or set spectrum caps.
Despite the issues highlighted above telecoms regulators are still keen on spectrum auctions and now favour the Combinatorial Clock Auction (CCA) format. A combinatorial auction has many benefits, but also limitations, particularly in a mature mobile market. An unfettered CCA favours large bidders and, depending on the rules, may allow vexatious bidding purely to impose costs on others. Hence regulators introduce all manner of rules to undo what a combinatorial auction is all about, namely to allocate spectrum to the highest bidder. Such “auction limitation rules” include band specific or overall caps, band specific obligations, limitations to bid based on market share, high reserve prices, roaming rules, deployment rules, etc. The imposition of such limitations invalidates the central hypothesis of a combinatorial auction with a second price rule; they are a misuse of this auction format. These limitations are also a tacit admission that auctions are no longer an appropriate spectrum allocation mechanism.
The auction orthodoxy has been further discredited by high reserve prices. In some cases reserve prices are so high that operators merely buy “their share” of the spectrum on offer at the reserve price. The Greek spectrum auction in November 2011 was a fine example. The combined reserve price was set at €82 million and the combined bid value amounted to €82.52 million. In other cases auction formats and reserve prices lead to extremely high prices in terms of €/MHz/pop, taking large amounts of money out of the industry. This is rather schizophrenic. On the one hand governments are taking billions out of the wireless industry and on the other hand they try to promote the building of broadband networks.
In this context the most bizarre event is the cancellation of the multi-band spectrum auction in the Czech Republic in March 2013. The Czech Telecommunication Officer (CTO) cited “excessively high” spectrum prices as the main reason for the cancellation, fearing these high prices would lead to higher prices for mobile broadband and slower deployment. Setting aside the point that the CTO’s arguments are not supported by economic theory, if the CTO does not believe in market based solutions, why have a spectrum auction in the first place?
The CTO’s reaction to high “high prices” is thrown into sharp relief by the announcement of the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) on 15th of April 2013 to conduct a value-for-money study of Ofcom’s CCA format spectrum auction. The auction which concluded in February 2013 raised £2.3bn, which was £1.2bn less than the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer budgeted for. Apparently the NAO does not believe that the CCA delivered what it should and is taking a politician’s budget target as an indication of the “right price”, and this despite the fact that Ofcom made clear that the primary objective of the auction was not to maximise the amount of money raised.
In most markets the mobile industry is now mature. Rather than new market entry consolidation is the name of the game. This is what is to be expected in maturing markets in any industry. The emphasis should therefore be to ensure that consumers have choice and prices are as low as they can be. This is not necessarily achieved by insisting on spectrum auctions and insisting that there is a large number of competing network operators. Sooner or later regulators will abandon the dogma of auctions and accept that the industry is heading for consolidation, at least network level and may devise administered spectrum allocation mechanism which “distribute” new spectrum among a reasonable number of operators, perhaps 3 or 4 in each market, depending on absolute size.
The DoJ’s filing does not call for an end to auctions, but it clearly voices the opinion that unfettered spectrum auctions are not in the public interest. Implicit in the DoJ’s approach is the belief that government knows best and is best placed to determine what number of network operators generate the greatest benefit to society. However, it is questionable that the public interest is best served by such an approach particularly since governments have erred on the high side with regards to the number of operators that a market can sustain. Enforced competition at network level leads to the destruction of value as has happened for example in Canada, Australia and some other markets. In any event, regulators start to have problems of a different kind: how to deal with global oligopolies created by successful OTT players.
Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting