If India’s telecom story was a TV series, with each year an episode, 2020 felt like a season finale. Not just because the world seemed to be coming to an end, but because the plotlines from the last few years finally wound down to definitive conclusions.
A new pecking order has been decisively established. Reliance Jio is at the front of the pack, with Bharti Airtel gamely doing its best to keep pace. Vi, formerly Vodafone-Idea, is happy to still be in business, even if it is some way off the pace. Though their rivalry remains eternal, they have also found common ground—floor pricing and 5G spectrum pricing—to band together on.
The tariff war that had plagued the sector, causing all telcos to bleed, is also a thing of the past. If 2019 saw the first tariff hikes first tariff hikes The Ken Reliance Jio travels first-class on the tariff hike gravy train Read more in three years, 2020 made clear that the trajectory of mobile tariffs would continue to move steadily upwards. Sustainability is no longer a distant dream but an eventuality.
The new season of Indian telecom looks to be fundamentally different. Apart from the main cast that we’ve grown used to, there are new additions to the telecom wars. There’s a new sheriff in town, with the telecom regulator getting a new head after RS Sharma, its controversial chief, retired in September. With all operators making moves in the direction of 5G over the coming year, fresh spectrum auctions will also be a huge part of the coming year.
Going once, going twice… sold?
This year was meant to play host to a spectrum auction. But with telecom companies still fighting to guarantee their survival and unlikely to participate, that never materialised.
There are two sets of spectrum bands that have to be auctioned. One set is for 2G, 3G, and 4G spectrum bands—700, 800, 900, 1800, 2100, 2300, 2500MHz. Much of the spectrum private operators hold in these bands is set to expire in various regions.
The government is expected to hold auctions for this spectrum in the final quarter of the year ended March 2021, with close to 2251MHz of spectrum, worth ~$53 billion 2251MHz of spectrum, worth ~$53 billion The Economic Times Govt to auction 2251.25 MHz spectrum worth Rs 3.92 lakh crore in March Read more , on the block.
The second auction will be for the much-coveted 5G spectrum. This is where things get interesting. Even as 5G networks are rolled out in other countries, the Indian government still hasn’t decided which spectrum band or even what quantity of spectrum to allot for 5G.