Portugal introduces yet more rules to push glacial 5G sale forward

Portugal’s telecoms regulator is taking further action to drive progress in the country’s never-ending 5G spectrum auction.

Unbelievably, the multi-band frequency auction is still going on, almost a year after it began, with operators bidding in tiny increments. The sale formally started in November last year, with the auction of frequencies reserved for a new entrant tied up in just eight days in January, after which the main part of the contest got underway; Monday marked the 175th day of bidding in that contest, with auction rounds now into the thousands.

Little wonder then that Anacom is stepping in. Again.

Effective next Monday, 27 September, the minimum bidding increment for each spectrum lot will be a 5% increase on the previous bid. The move will put paid to operators bidding in 1% and 3% increments – the former has been particularly well used – and should move the process forward faster.

‘Should’ is certainly the key word, though. The regulator was optimistic that its previous tweaking of the rules in June would be sufficient to speed things up, but as it turned out, the move had little effect. Back then, Anacom believed that reducing the duration of bidding rounds to allow for more rounds to be completed in a day – 12, up from a previous seven, and six at the start of the contest – would be sufficient to get things moving.

At the time it seemed unlikely that the change would have a massive effect, given that bidding was already at the 100-day mark. Anacom announced the decision after 580 rounds of bidding, thus it was already pretty clear that the participants were in no hurry. The regulator reserved the right to increase the minimum bidding increment, should the process not speed up, and more than three months and another 600 rounds of bidding later, here we are.

“Simply increasing the number of rounds has not been enough to counter the very low level of excess demand that exists, and, therefore, carrying out 12 daily rounds has not been enough to achieve the intended speed of the auction,” Anacom admitted. “Likewise, it can also be seen that the recurrent use of lower percentage increments did not change significantly.”

After day 175 the total bids had reached €368.2 million, less than double the €195.9 million reserve price and – shockingly – less than €50 million more than the running total after day 99.

The regulator reiterated its earlier comments about the slow pace of the auction being detrimental to both consumers and businesses in Portugal, since it will delay the rollout of 5G.

“Additionally, this delay could impact the conditions of competition existing in the national market, bearing in mind the measures that were provided for in the auction regulations to create a level playing field for all market participants,” it said.

That last point refers to the entry of a new player into the Portuguese market. The regulator’s decision to reserve spectrum for a new entrant – and the conditions it proposed for doing that – was chief among the concerns of the existing players who so vehemently opposed the auction plans last year. The regulator made some changes, but the established operators are still not happy. Whether they are bidding slowly on purpose is not wholly clear…

We will not find out the identity of the new entrant until after the main portion of the auction comes to an end. MasMovil was widely reported to have snagged the reserved airwaves after a short – but competitive – bidding process at the start of the year. It, or whoever the winner turns out to be, is doubtless highly frustrated by the snail’s pace of progress in the main event.

As are most people connected with the Portuguese telecoms industry…aside from the telcos themselves, apparently.

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