Clearing a low bar: On spectrum sale

The government must take a relook at spectrum auction formats, unrealistic pricing, and regulatory norms

In a repeat of the 2016 auction’s outcome, the significantly more efficient 700 MHz was yet again shunned by all bidders given its prohibitive reserve price. It is a little hard to fathom the government’s approach to pricing this nationally valuable resource, especially given its avowed intention of accelerating the digitisation of the economy including the broadening and deepening of the digital delivery of the multitude of public services to India’s farthest reaches. The relatively low frequency 700 MHz, for instance, is considered as ideal for enhancing network availability and reach in the highly urbanised settings of large, densely built-up cities where the issue of poor signal penetration inside buildings is a perpetual bugbear for users and providers alike. For all the brave talk on the auction’s outcome providing assurance, the nation’s telecom authorities need to take a hard look at the entire policy framework that has contributed a fair share to the current precarity in the industry. From auction formats that may no longer be relevant given the sharply reduced number of players, to grossly unrealistic pricing of spectrum, and regulatory norms and tax practices that threaten to tip the sector into an unhealthy and fractious duopoly, the government has its task cut out. It must now act quickly to ensure it does not end up hurting the very sector that has become a key multiplier of economic empowerment and progress.

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