Germany frees up the whole of C-Band for 5G and the GSMA approves, sort of

The German government has decided to make the entire 3.4-3.8 GHz band available for 5G use, which is a good idea.

For 5G to do its thing, it needs big chunks of continuous spectrum to ‘fatten the pipe’. Piecemeal auctions of 3.4-3.8 GHz spectrum (otherwise known as C-Band) such as we had in the UK earlier this year, are not as useful as offering up the whole lot in one go. The eventual outcome may end up being the same, but the whole process is a lot more complicated.

This decision has been met with approval by the mobile industry trade association, the GSMA. “The C-Band is the most vital frequency band for 5G,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “Germany is demonstrating 5G leadership in the timely release of this vital spectrum, but risks undercutting its 5G future with unnecessary obligations. Spectrum is a limited resource and it must be used and managed as efficiently as possible to ensure a 5G future that will benefit all.”

Among the GSMA’s regulatory gripes are proposed coverage obligations for 3.6 GHz spectrum, which it says disregard the laws of physics. Since the time of Isaac Newton this had been frowned on by polite society and the GSMA has chosen to use this emotive concept to point out what short range these high frequencies have.

They do seem to have a point here. 5G is all about capacity and surely coverage obligations can be left to earlier generations in the short term and 5G over lower frequencies in the long term. As characterized by the GSMA this stipulation seems to be gratuitous, counter-productive and a classic example of regulation for the hell of it.

Other than that there are some inevitable whinges about roaming obligations and high reserve prices for the auction. In the latter case we have sympathy for the GSMA position as any attempt by the German government to push up the price of spectrum is a blatant cash grab and an indirect tax on mobile subscribers.

Iliad threatens Italy with legal action over 5G spectrum extensions

Iliad is reportedly on the verge of taking Italian watchdog Agcom to court over licence extensions in the valuable 3.5 GHz band which were offered to various WiMAX operators back in 2008.

After having to defend the almost laughable prices operators will be having to fork out for 5G spectrum, Agcom is now under-fire for considering cut-price extensions for four companies in the 3.5 GHz range. With Iliad Italia forking out €1.2 billion 20 MHz of 3.7 GHz and 10 MHz in the 700 MHz band, you can see why the team has issue with the extensions being offered.

The licenses in the 5G-applicable frequencies were initially granted to Linkem, Tiscali, Go Internet and Mandarin back in 2008, with the option of a six-year extension once the initial license expires in 2023. According to Corriere delle Comunicazioni, all of Italy’s operators are irked at the situation, but Iliad is leading the charge with the threat of taking the regulator to regional courts to dispute the decision.

What is worth noting is this is not taking any of the spoils away from the victors of the expensive auction. Not all of the valuable assets in the 3.4-3.6 GHz frequency range were released for auction, with the remaining licenses being used to honour the extensions. Whether these extensions will be allowed to stand is unknown for the moment, as aside from Iliad protests, Italian Senators have requested an investigation by Ministry of Development boss Luigi Di Maio.

One company which will certainly benefit from the saga is Fastweb, a Swisscom subsidiary which primarily offer broadband services in Italy. Fastweb came to a €150 million wholesale agreement with the cash-strapped Tiscali in 2016 for 40 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band, an absolute steal when you compare to the inflated prices for 5G-capable spectrum in the recent auction. Fastweb might be looking pretty now, but the convergence plans will certainly come under-threat with Iliad legal ambitions.

For those who are of a logical disposition, and considering the inflated figures being discussed in the recent Italian auction, one would think the Italian government would decide against renewing the extensions and offer the available spectrum in an auction. Legacy-agreements are certainly something to consider, though the landscape has seemingly evolved enough over the last decade suggest these extensions are no longer viable.

This certainly will not be the only legacy-agreement in place around the world which will come back to bite, though the saga does not add credibility to the Italian government’s ability to operate in a fair and just manner.

Italian 5G spectrum orgy reaches its climax

The frenzy of bidding for mid frequency 5G spectrum in Italy has come to a climax with operators’ cash reserves apparently spent.

The hot action took place around the 3.7 GHz band, where the relatively small amount of spectrum on offer – 200 MHz – and the presence of a new fourth player – Iliad – ensured supply outstripped demand. When we last checked in the bidding had already become frenzied, but they still managed to keep it up for another nine days.

As you can see from the final table published by Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development below, the final amount of cash trousered by the Italian government was €6.5 billion, around three times more than was expected at the start of the process. In hindsight that seems pretty naïve, especially when it came to demand for 3.7 GHz spectrum, but then again Italian operators have paid way more than any other European country for this decidedly limited spectrum.

We could go through all the European 5G auctions ourselves in order to calculate the average price per MHz paid for mid frequency spectrum, but why bother when Iain Morris from Light Reading has already done so and we can just rip off his work?

In Finland’s recent auction 390 MHz of mid frequency spectrum was offered up to three operators. At least in part due to there being so much more spectrum on offer the Finnish operators only shelled out the equivalent of four cents per MHz, according to Morris. The traditionally exuberant UK operators dropped 15 cents per MHz in their equivalent auction but the Italians dwarfed that in dropping 42 cents per MHz.

Telecom Italia seemed happy with the outcome in a press release. “By securing all three band frequencies put on auction, TIM strengthens its network leadership in Italy,” said CEO Amos Genish. “The new frequencies acquired represent a core asset for the Group’s future development and, at the same time, for the ongoing digitization of Italy.” The release also said the 26 GHz block was 200 MHz wide, which was presumably the case for everyone.

Italy 5G auction final

Telia pays the most in Finnish 5G auction

Finland offered up nearly 400 MHz of mid frequency 5G spectrum to its MNOs and Telia bought the most expensive block.

The whole of the 3410-3800 MHz frequency range, split into three blocks of 130 MHz each. After just a few days of bidding Finland’s three MNOs concluded their business as follows:

Frequency band 3410–3540 MHz (A)

Telia Finland

€30,258,000

Frequency band 3540–3670 MHz (B)

Elisa

€26,347,000

Frequency band 3670–3800 MHz (C)

DNA

€21,000,000

The slightly lower frequency stuff apparently has a bit more value than the rest and it’s worth noting that Elisa is the market leader by subscriber number so it looks like Telia has decided to make a strategic move to close the gap in the 5G era. While Finland is admittedly a much smaller country, €77 million seems like a small return for the government when you compare it to the frenzied bidding we’re seeing in Italy.

Italian operators throw money at 3.7 GHz spectrum

Italian politicians must be loving the country’s ongoing 5G auction, with operators bidding on the 3.7 GHz band like they think they’re still using lira.

One of the fun things about Europe before the euro was the existence of currencies that, due to historical hyperinflation, operated at crazy exchange rates to the pound. Italy was one of the best examples of this and who doesn’t miss going over there and stuffing their wallet with billion lira notes?

That same longing seems to apply to the Italian operators, who have decided to compete with each other, over relatively useless mid frequency spectrum, with such fervent abandon that it’s hard not to conclude they still believe the bill will be settled in the long-abandoned national currency.

A week ago they agreed to pay the going rate for 700 MHz spectrum that is especially handy due to its long range and superior propagation qualities. They also had a few rounds of bidding on higher frequency spectrum and we noted that Wind might want to make sure it gets a nice lot of 3.7 GHz band, since it didn’t get any 700 MHz, and that new-entrant Iliad might also want to grab more than just 20 MHz of 3.7 gig.

The ensuing days apparently saw frenzied bidding for the 3.7 GHz band to roughly triple the level it was a week previously (see table). This means the Italian state is already set to pocket billions of euros more than was forecast at the start of the auction process and there’s still plenty of time to go.

For context read this Light Reading analysis of the auction orgy thus far, which notes that the Spanish and Irish were far more parsimonious than the Italians are being and even the spectrum-hungry UK operators were positively reticent by comparison. The fun starts again this week and who knows what levels it could reach after a weekend on the Grappa.

Italy 5G auction table 2

And the winner is… Comcast!!!!

Comcast has emerged as the winner of the drawn-out Sky acquisition battle with 21st Century Fox, offering shareholders £17.28 per share.

After 21 months, much bickering and passive aggressive commentary, the auction was completed on Saturday 22 September, with Comcast valuing the business at £30 billion. The unusual auction process was overseen by The Takeover Panel, an independent body established in 1968, whose main function is to issue and administer the City Code on M&A.

“We consider the Comcast Offer to be an excellent outcome for Sky shareholders, and we are recommending it as it represents materially superior value,” said Martin Gilbert, Chairman of the Independent Committee of Sky. “We are focused on drawing this process to a successful and swift close and therefore urge shareholders to accept the recommended Comcast Offer.”

“Sky is a wonderful company with a great platform, tremendous brand, and accomplished management team,” said Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. “This acquisition will allow us to quickly, efficiently and meaningfully increase our customer base and expand internationally.”

In securing Sky, Comcast not only adds an additional 23 million customer relationships to its current subscriber base of 29 million, it also increases its footprint in international markets. Prior to swallowing the Sky business, Comcast attributed 9% of its revenues to the international markets, though this now increases to 25%. It’s a more diversified business, offering comfort for Comcast shareholders, while also creating a broad and varied content portfolio. Alongside partnerships with HBO and Showtime, Sky also brings with it a heavyweight position in sport content, a presence which has underpinned its success.

Looking more specifically at the auction process, it was a slightly unusual one. Starting on Friday night, both companies made a starting bid, with the lowest offeror at the commencement being afforded the opportunity to make an increased bid in the first round. In the second round, only the offeror that was not eligible to make a bid in the first round could make an increased bid. If there was not an increased bid in the second round, the auction would have been concluded, though it did run to the third (and final) round, where both companies were offered a final opportunity to increase bids.

As a result of this process, Comcast tabled a bid of £17.28 compared to £15.67 per share from 21st Century Fox. The winning bid represents a premium of 125% to the closing price of £7.69 on 6 December 2016, the last business day before 21st Century Fox’s initial approach. Sky has proven to be a very successful bet for investors representing a ten-year total shareholder return (since 1 July 2008) of +402%, compared to +97% as an average of the FTSE 100.

While this might seem to be the end of a prolonged saga, there are a couple of twists yet to be turned. Firstly, Comcast still has to convince shareholders to part with their assets, and secondly, what will the future hold for the Sky telco business?

In terms of the shareholders, for Comcast to officially secure Sky it will have to gain approval of 50% of shareholders. Fox/Disney currently owns 39% of the business and is yet to disclose what its own position will be, meaning Comcast will have to convince 82% of the remaining shareholders to be safe. Due to the Fox/Disney 39% stake, de-listing Sky will be an unlikely outcome (75% threshold is needed), as will squeezing out remaining shareholders (90% ownership is required). 21st Century Fox could remain a thorn in Comcast’s side for some time.

Another question worth considering is what to do with the Sky telco business. Comcast’s intentions in acquiring Sky have been clear; it is Europe’s most powerful content business; though the telco business comes with this prize. Sky certainly has a notable broadband business in the UK (roughly 6 million subscriptions) and has successfully launched its own MVNO, though it is currently unclear whether this is an area Comcast would like to develop or whether it will look for a sale.

According to RBC Capital Markets, an acquirer would have to shell out in the region of £4.5 billion to purchase the Sky telco business, though there do not seem to be many suitors. BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk are too large for antitrust approval, leaving only O2 and Three in the telco space. Considering the precarious financial position of O2’s parent company Telefonica, and recent comments from CEO Mark Evans dismissing the convergence craze, O2 seems unlikely.

Like O2, Three has a large mobile business but no presence in the broadband space; a converged offer would be of interest to cash-conscious consumers. It is unknown whether Three parent company Hutchison would want to pursue this avenue, though considering it has begrudgingly spent and cash in the past, instead trying to use political influence to better Three’s prospects (it has a reputation as a moany, spoilt child for a reason), we can’t see this as realistic.

The only other option which would be on the table would be a player from the financial market, though RBC Capital Markets feels Comcast will retain the telco business without expanding it to the continent. Sky is demonstrating the convergence business model can work, and it is an important aspect of the offering in customer eyes; why would it want to undermine a healthy position. As the old Bert Lance motto goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

The auctions bring to close a long-running chapter in the European content game, but this is by no means the end of the story. With its 39% stake in the business, 21st Century Fox can still be a prominent character.

German 5G auction set for early 2019, with some strings attached

2 GHz and 3.6 GHz frequency bands are to be auctioned out in the first quarter of 2019 to build 5G networks in Germany, there is no universal coverage requirement but something close.

In May the German telecom regulator BNetzA (Bundesnetzagentur, or Federal Network Agency) announced that a 5G spectrum auction will be held in early 2019. The delay from the original plan of this year was down to the disagreement between politicians who required future successful bidders should provide universal coverage, and the more pragmatic stance of BNetzA.

On Monday 17 September, BNetzA published the consulting paper for the auction. It does not require successful bidders to provide nationwide 5G coverage, but does ask for coverage of 98% of the households as well as sufficiently good coverage along the federal and state motorways.

“We need to be ambitious but also realistic,” said Jochen Homann, President of BNetzA, in the press release. “We are already setting demanding conditions to improve mobile networks. For example, we demand data transfer speed be doubled (in 3 years).” The guideline requires successful bidders to provide coverage to 98% of household with 100Mbits/s speed by the end of 2022 and 300Mbits/s by the end of 2025. “National coverage of 5G will be excessively expensive,” added Homann.

German 5G data rate requirement (002)

Source: BNetzA consulting paper, p.112. 17 September 2018

Apparently, this does not look to have gone far enough for the politicians. In addition to the requirements for universal coverage, the politicians also demand the national operators (Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, and Telefonica Deutschland) should provide access to competitors who do not have their own coverage. If this were to be implemented, it would open door to challenger MVNOs like United Internet (operated under the brand “1&1 Drillisch”) to 5G, offering a 4th operator legislators have long craved for.

“Attaching national roaming obligations to spectrum does help to support smaller operators and stimulate competition. So it would be an interesting addition to the license obligations to encourage a new entrant to participate in the auction,” Phil Kendall of research firm Strategy Analytics told Telecoms.com. “But politicians looking to plug a digital divide can’t just assume this is more about the stick than the carrot.”

The guidelines will go through BNetzA’s advisory board, which is composed of elected lawmakers, on 24 September, and final decisions will be made in November. The auction will take place in the first quarter of 2019, and lower band frequency more suitable for broader coverage will be auctioned in the next few years, according to the consulting paper.

 

Italy trousers €2 billion in pre-5G 700 MHz auction

A spectrum action in Italy covering a bunch of bands has concluded its first phase with prices roughly in line with expectations.

Bidding is underway on spectrum in the 700 MHz, 3.7 GHz and 26 GHz bands, but only the former has concluded. The starting price was €338 million per 2×5 MHz block of 700 MHz spectrum and TIM, Vodafone and Iliad all got 2×10 paired. Iliad apparently didn’t need to bid but the other two don’t seem to have craven the price up much as you can see from the table below.

Wind didn’t get any 700 MHz spectrum, but seems to be pretty keen on some 3.7 GHz action, having bid €338.5 mil for an apparently pre-specified 80 MHz block of it. TIM is leading the chase for the only other 80 MHz chunk, with Iliad apparently content with 20 GHz and Wind the front runner for the other 20 MHz. A contiguous 100 MHz block of 3.7 GHz would come in handy but it seems likely that Wind is bidding against Vodafone for that bit.

TIM issued an announcement gloating about the fact that it now has spectrum in every sub-1 GHz band available. “This important result increases the frequencies available to TIM which are essential for the 5G services,” said the TIM statement. “The new spectrum will be added to the 20+20 MHz that TIM has in the low frequency 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands, which already ensure the supply of UBB services to more than 98% of the population.”

It seems sensible to have a great big auction of a bunch of different spectrum, given the imminence of 5G in the wild. Iliad has been guaranteed a nice lot of 700 MHz, which will help a lot with coverage, but it might want to have another bid for that bigger block of 3.7 GHz if it want to be a significant 5G player. You can read further analysis on this at Light Reading here.

Italy 700 MHz auction table

FCC unveils plans for US 5G spectrum auctions

The FCC has released the procedures for the upcoming spectrum auctions in the US, across various bands ranging from 24 GHz through to 47 GHZ.

Looking at the 28 GHz (27.5-28.35 GHz) and 24 GHz (24.25-24.45, 24.75-25.25 GHz) bands to start with, licenses will be available through two auctions with separate application and bidding processes for each auction. Bidding for licenses in both bands will begin on November 14, starting with 28 GHz, with the 24 GHz auction starting immediately afterwards. With ‘simplicity’ in mind, the FCC has decided to format each of the auctions differently.

The auction of the licenses in the 28 GHz band will use the standard simultaneous multiple round auction format, in two 425 MHz blocks by county. The following auction for 24 GHz will make use of a clock auction format, beginning with a clock phase that will allow bidding on generic blocks in each Partial Economic Area in successive bidding rounds. An assignment phase will follow, with the 24 GHz licenses offered in seven 100 megahertz blocks.

“The 28 GHz band auction will begin on November 14, and soon after its conclusion, the 24 GHz band auction will commence,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “The 1.55 gigahertz of spectrum in these two high bands will be critical in deploying 5G wireless, Internet of Things, and other advanced spectrum-based services.

“And we’re not stopping with these two auctions. In the second half of 2019, we intend to hold an auction of three more millimeter-wave spectrum bands: 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz. Between that auction and the auctions for which we establish procedures today, we’ll push almost 5 gigahertz of spectrum into the commercial marketplace over the course of the next seventeen months.”

In terms of the mmWave spectrum, the procedures are not yet in place, though a set of proposals have been put forward to the industry. Firstly, the FCC proposes to modify the 39 GHz, Upper 37 GHz, and 47 GHz band plans from 200 megahertz to 100 megahertz channels. Secondly, the team would like to propose incentive auction that would offer contiguous blocks of spectrum throughout the 39 GHz, Upper 37 GHz, and 47 GHz bands. In the assignment phase, incentive payments would be offered to incumbents who choose to relinquish their spectrum usage rights to make new licenses available.

Next, the FCC would like to introduce a pre-auction voucher exchange that would allow incumbent licensees to consolidate and rationalize their holdings before the auction. And finally, plans to repack any incumbent licensees that choose not to participate in the incentive auction.

“This auction will make available 3.4 gigahertz of mmWave spectrum for the commercial marketplace, including 2.4 gigahertz of contiguous spectrum,” said Pai. “But not all of this spectrum is ready to be auctioned. In particular, there are too many incumbent interests in the 39 GHz band, and efforts to resolve these encumbrances voluntarily haven’t solved the problem. This calls us to act.”

Of course, the ideas presented for the mmWave auctions are only proposals for the moment. Pai and his cronies eagerly await feedback from the industry.