Indian telecom outlook uncertain after 3G auction

Nine telecom companies are forking over $14.6 billion to the Indian government for coveted 3G mobile spectrum. The question now is: Will they ever get their money’s worth?

The auction further splintered India’s hyper-competitive mobile market and forces Indian telecoms to make steep payouts even as a price war crushes profit margins.

Moreover, converting customers to 3G in a nation whose work force is still dominated by small farmers could prove challenging. Many Indians in rural areas, which have driven subscriber growth, may be content with affordable, basic voice services for years to come, analysts say.

Companies, including Bharti Airtel, India’s leading mobile operator, believe they overpaid.

In 34 days of fiercely competitive bidding that ended Wednesday, prices spiraled to roughly twice what the government had expected.

While the auction was undeniably good for New Delhi — which could use its unexpected windfall to trim the swollen fiscal deficit — auction prices rose so high that none of the seven winning operators will have a pan-India presence. It remains to be seen how companies will tie up — or consolidate — to provide nationwide coverage to their 3G subscribers.

Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications and Aircel each won bids in 13 of 22 areas, more than any other company. Vodafone bought into nine areas.

“The auction format and severe spectrum shortage along with ensuing policy uncertainty, drove the prices beyond reasonable levels,” Bharti said in a statement. “As a result, we could not achieve our objective of pan India 3G footprint in this round.”

Bharti paid 123 billion rupees ($2.7 billion) for spectrum in 13 areas, including key cities Mumbai and New Delhi.

Vodafone, which paid 116.2 billion rupees ($2.5 billion) for coverage of two-thirds of its current customer revenue base, including New Delhi and Mumbai, said it aimed to roll out 3G services by year’s end.

Macquarie Securities analysts said the fractured auction results, with smaller players Aircel and TataTeleservices picking up 13 and 9 areas respectively, would lead to a further splintering of the mobile industry.

It’s also not clear to analysts whether most Indians need — or want — 3G spectrum. India’s mobile market is far from mature, adding 20 million users a month, many of them in rural villages where they have little use for the fancy data services, video calls and high-tech graphic applications that 3G makes possible.

Only 5 percent of mobile phone owners have handsets with 3G capability, according to Macquarie.

Sandeep Ladda, an executive director at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Mumbai, said what many operators really wanted was not the 3G license, but the additional spectrum to serve India’s fast-growing mobile market.

“I’m not going to provide 3G in every village and town. My interest is in providing basic services, like voice, in areas where I’m adding customers,” he said.

He said it could take five years before operators recoup their bids.

The government had expected to get less than 350 billion rupees ($7.5 billion) but in 183 rounds of bidding, the amount rose to 509.7 billion rupees ($11 billion), according to bid prices listed on the Department of Telecommunications’ website.

Two state owned companies, which were given advance spectrum, must also match the winning bid prices, making the total government take 677 billion rupees ($14.6 billion).

The government could use that unexpected windfall to trim its swollen fiscal deficit.

“It will provide me a little elbow room,” Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters after the auction results were announced.

A separate auction for broadband wireless spectrum is expected to start soon.

Investors greeted the end of uncertainty about 3G pricing with wary relief Thursday. In morning trade on the Bombay Stock Exchange, telecom stocks gained as much as 6 percent, before paring gains by midday. Bharti Airtel was up 1.2 percent, Idea Cellular rose 2.9 percent and Reliance Communications gained 1.6 percent, while the benchmark Sensex index was up 1.0 percent.

Associated Press