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TPG and newcomers pass on Australia 5G spectrum sale

Optus and Telstra shared the spoils at this week’s auction of sub-1 GHz frequencies for 5G in Australia, with smaller rival TPG declining to participate and new market entrants failing to materialise.

The sale of 16 lots of spectrum in the 850/900 MHz band raised A$2.09 billion, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) noted. Optus accounted for almost three quarters of the figure, parting with A$1.48 billion for 12 lots, while Telstra committed A$615.7 million to secure the remainder.

Optus is naturally upbeat. Chief executive Kelly Bayer Rosmarin described the 900 MHz band as a “foundational layer” for the telco’s 5G network, and insisted that the auction result was a “fantastic outcome for Australian consumers and businesses.”

But, depending on your point of view, the sale could be seen to have been something of a damp squib.

Under auction rules capping ownership of low-band spectrum Telstra was limited in the amount of frequencies it was able bid for and won the maximum allowed. The telco followed Optus in heralding the news “a win” for its customers, especially in regional and rural areas. Fair point. Additional spectrum is never a bad thing.

But with Telstra handcuffed to a certain extent, the lack of interest from other players left the way clear for Optus to hoover up the remainder. 2 x 25 MHz, to be precise, including the lots it had reserved for it ahead of the sale.

“We applaud the Government for prioritising competition and consumer interests in ensuring a competitive auction process that has also delivered more equitable holdings of this critical low band spectrum,” Bayer Rosmarin said.

While the auction has evened up Telstra and Optus’ spectrum holdings, it hasn’t opened up the market any.

Third operator TPG Telecom also had spectrum set aside as part of the government’s rebalancing plan, but chose not to take up the offer.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted TPG Telecom chief executive Iñaki Berroeta as saying that his company already has low-band spectrum and did not feel spending more money at the auction would be in the best interests of customers or shareholders.

That seems an unusual stance, but the comment comes just three weeks after Berroeta announced the launch of 5G standalone, at the same time noting that the telco’s 5G network coverage now reaches 85% of the population in 10 of Australia’s largest cities and regions. Given Australia’s population distribution, that’s not as thin a claim as it might first seem. TPG is clearly happy with its current position.

When the government opened applications for the auction just over three months ago there was talk of a new player taking part. We weren’t expecting a new full-scale mobile service provider to suddenly appear and bid fiercely for spectrum – the merger of third and fourth operators TPG and Vodafone to create the current TPG Telecom was completed less than 18 months ago, after all – but, again given the nature of Australia’s geography, the auction could have proved a draw for a regional player looking at fixed wireless services.

But it wasn’t to be, and the airwaves went to the big two. While they are clearly excited about it, the rest of us will likely move on pretty quickly.

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One comment

  1. Avatar Professor Peter Curwen 08/12/2021 @ 5:17 pm

    THe price per MHz per pop was relatively high, but it is worth observing that the spectrum bands in question have not been auctioned in other countries for 5G so there is no real way to draw comparisons.

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