2G spectrum price proposals hit telco stocks

NEW DELHI Tue Apr 24, 2012 11:19am IST

A boy closes the shutter of a shop painted with an advertisement for Bharti Airtel in Ahmedabad May 5, 2011. REUTERS/Amit Dave/Files

A boy closes the shutter of a shop painted with an advertisement for Bharti Airtel in Ahmedabad May 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave/Files

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The telecoms regulator's proposal for a near 10-fold increase in basic mobile phone spectrum prices and switching of radio spectrum given to older carriers knocked down shares of leading operators on fears that the big potential payouts will further hurt an already bleeding industry.

Shares in top mobile operator Bharti Airtel (BRTI.NS) fell as much as 7.5 percent on Tuesday morning to their lowest level since July 2010, while fourth-ranked Idea Cellular (IDEA.NS) fell as much as 9.8 percent, before cutting some losses.

No. 2 Reliance Communications (RLCM.NS) fell as much as 3.4 percent.

The country's telecoms sector, the world's second-biggest by subscribers, has been battered by ferocious competition and a scandal over below-market price sale of lucrative mobile phone permits in a 2008 state sale process.

The Supreme Court has ordered 122 permits granted to eight operators in the 2008 sale be revoked in early June and asked the government to redistribute radioairwaves through an open bidding process.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India late on Monday recommended an auction base price of 36.22 billion rupees for every megahertz (MHz) of nationwide spectrum in the 1800 MHz band, compared with a price of 3.8 billion rupees in the 2008 sale.

This would be a blow to companies such as the Indian unit of Norway's Telenor (TEL.OL) and Indian firm Idea Cellular (IDEA.NS) and Tata Teleservices who are set to lose some or all their zonal permits after the court order, as nationwide spectrum of 5 MHz quantity would cost a minimum $3.6 billion.

While the proposed starting price for the basic second-generation 1800 MHz band is 8 percent higher than what operators paid for premium 3G spectrum in 2010, the regulator has suggested a base price of 72.44 billion rupees per MHz for spectrum in the 800 and 900 MHz bands held by older operators.

The regulator also suggested that the government should carry out refarming, or switching of, spectrum bands "progressively at an early date". Such refarming is a global practice to resell more-efficient spectrum bands for premium services such as 3G.

But such a move could hit companies such as Bharti and Vodafone's (VOD.L) Indian unit, most of whose existing bandwidth is in the more efficient 900 MHz band.

That bandwidth would be replaced with spectrum in the 1800 MHz band, which would increase their capital expenditure, or the companies would have to pay a heavy price to retain the 900 MHz band spectrum.

Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in note the regulator's proposals were negative for the older players as well as the newer entrants as it would "stretch their weak balance sheets".

The proposals would, however, put Reliance Industries (RELI.NS) that has access to nationwide 4G spectrum at an advantage as the regulator suggested holding auction of fresh 4G spectrum preferably in 2014.

The regulator's proposals are not binding on the government and a panel of ministers will decide on the spectrum rules.

(Reporting by Devidutta Tripathy; Editing by Aradhana Aravindan)

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