India's Big Three gun for 3G spectrum

Nicole McCormick
22 Mar 2010

India’s Big Three operators – Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications and Vodafone-Essar – have all put their hands up for both 3G and broadband wireless spectrum in India.

Joining the trio in gunning for both spectrum batches is the Tata group powerhouse – whose GSM service is backed by NTT DoCoMo - and the country’s third largest GSM operator Idea Cellular, a subsidiary of Telekom Malaysia.

Maxis-controlled mobile operator Aircel is also seeking spectrum at 2100MHz for 3G and 2.5GHz for Wimax.

The fact that all the big names have signalled their intention to bid for 3G spectrum is going to make it extremely difficult for newcomers Etisalat, S Tel and Videocon – which complete the list of nine 3G applicants - to get any 3G spectrum at all.

The Big Three cellcos are all seeking pan-Indian spectrum, which comes with a reserve price of a cool $760 million.

And with only three or four 3G lots available in each circle, less rich operators will likely be outbid by the larger, more established operators.

For their part, the incumbents claim they urgently need 2100Mhz spectrum to alleviate voice capacity constraints on their full-to-busting 2G networks.

With newly acquired 3G spectrum to be used mainly for voice purposes by incumbent operators, Wimax presents an alternative mobile broadband opportunity for the likes of Bharti, RCom and Vodafone.

But there’s only two slots going at 2.5GHz for mobile broadband, with 11 bidders.

One to watch is Qualcomm which last week confirmed it planned to roll out TD-LTE at 2.5GHz.

If successful, the rollout could seriously dampen Wimax’s short-term prospects in India.

Watch this space: India’s 3G auctions start April 9, with the 2.5GHz auction to begin two days after the 3G auction’s wind up.

Commercial 3G services by the private operators can commence from September 1.Government-owned BSNL and MTNL have already rolled out 3G networks, but their spectrum costs hinge on the outcome of next month’s private operator auctions.

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