Regulators across Europe are busy this year auctioning spectrum in the 2.6GHz spectrum frequency range as well as other frequencies including the 800MHz Digital Dividend. 800MHz spectrum is clearly of great value to operators as the equivalent US auction demonstrated. The low frequency allows the radio signal to propagate further which means that fewer base stations and hence capital expenditure is required to provide coverage compared to higher frequencies such as 2.6GHz. This makes the spectrum ideal for supporting mobile broadband services at manageable levels of cost. The lower frequency range also provides better in-building penetration and as mobile broadband usage seems to be predominantly in-doors, this further increases its attractiveness. The first significant auction of spectrum in the 800MHz band is currently taking place in Germany and bidding levels have already reached 0.67 $/MHz/Pop. At this level the price paid is greater than the prices paid in the heady days of the Dot Com book for 3G spectrum in Denmark and Austria but it is still considerably lower than the US 700MHz auction average of 1.18 $/MHz/Pop. If German prices reached this level it would also put them on a par with the auctions of 3G spectrum in the Netherlands and Italy at the start of the new millennium. Prices would then have to increase by more than three fold to reach the German 3G auction price levels. Prices may well continue to move higher but with few other benchmarks available it is too early to draw any significant conclusions regarding this spectrum band but at present the bidding levels look reasonable.
In contrast to 800MHz there has been much greater activity in relation to 2.6GHz spectrum. Norway, Finland and Sweden auctioned their spectrum in 2007, 2008 and 2009 respectively. This year the Netherlands and Denmark have already concluded their 2.6GHz auctions, the auction in Germany is on-going and at least a further six 2.6GHz auctions are expected at some point during 2010 (France, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Belgium are all expected to hold auctions this year). Mobile operators will be busy preparing their 2.6GHz business cases in preparation for the auctions and in doing so they will be attempting to make sense of the results of the spectrum auctions that have already taken place. This is no easy task when the highest price paid so far in Europe (Sweden, May 2008) is almost 135 times greater than the lowest (the Netherlands, April 2010). Analysis is further complicated by the fact that in most auctions the paired spectrum (FDD) has commanded a premium to un-paired (TDD) spectrum which in some cases attracted no bids at all (Netherlands). However, in the case of Finland the result was reversed with the TDD spectrum priced at a premium to FDD.
Attempting to make sense of these results requires the consideration of a great many factors. The timing of the auctions is important as some occurred before the start of the on-going financial crisis. The licence conditions attached to the spectrum, such as coverage requirement, should also be considered. These vary from regulator to regulator and the more onerous the coverage requirements, for example, the less valuable the spectrum. However, in the end, the final price paid in an efficient auction will determined by relative levels of spectrum supply and demand. The regulators have taken different approaches when it comes to supply and have auctioned blocks ranging from 2x5MHz to 2x20MHz and everything in between. Caps on total spectrum holdings have also been imposed in some cases. The fewer unique blocks that are offered the greater is the potential for demand to outstrip supply. On the demand side the most significant factor is the number of incumbent operators and in Europe this varies from 2 in Norway to 4 in markets like Denmark and Sweden. There has also been demand from new entrants usually arising from the existing cable operators such was the case in the Netherlands. In addition to the number of potential bidders demand will also be influenced by operators’ expectations of future mobile data traffic. Mobile data traffic is growing exponentially and no one has a clear view of where demand levels will be in 15 or 20 years time which is the typical term for the new spectrum licences. Not only must operators contend with uncertainty over traffic levels there also remains uncertainty over what levels of data throughput can actually be achieved when technologies such as LTE and MIMO are implemented in this frequency range and have matured. On the issue of TDD versus FDD it would seem that there is a reasonably clear trend that the FDD spectrum is more valuable than the TDD spectrum however this is not always the case and the relative valuations can vary significantly.
Despite a reasonable number of 2.6GHz auctions having taken place it is almost impossible to draw any firm conclusions especially as the design of each auction is also subtly different which can have a major impact on participant’s bidding strategies and ultimately the price paid. As a result, for any operator facing a 2.6GHz auction little conclusive insight can be drawn from the results of the 2.6GHz spectrum auctions to date. Therefore in order to prepare for an auction a country, operator and auction specific business case will be required to value the spectrum and to allow the operator to bid with confidence.