Back in November 2000, Ofcom held a spectrum auction of 28 GHz Broadband Fixed Wireless Access (BFWA) licences, which were sold on a 15-year fixed-term basis. During the first few years of these licence terms, some operators invested heavily into 28 GHz hardware and networks, leading to higher levels of innovation by both manufacturers and operators in this band. But operator’s investment levels have a tendency to drop when the licences get closer to the end of their term. This is due to the operator’s business plan (related to the spectrum asset) no longer yielding the required margins and return on investment (ROI).
In a more recent Ofcom spectrum auction in February 2008, 10 GHz, more 28 GHz, 32 GHz and 40 GHz spectrum access licences were auctioned on an “indefinite term”. Following this auction, the majority of licences auctioned in November 2000 have been varied to “indefinite term” too, subject to payment of fees from January 2016. In December this year, the licences awarded in November 2000 will come to the end of their initial term and Ofcom has announced proposals that will allow operators to hold spectrum indefinitely, subject to the payment of fees. This is proposed to be calculated using comparable licence costs of fixed-link in similar frequency bands. The proposal of indefinite licences based on fees will go a long way, allowing operators to sweat deployed infrastructure based on their 28 GHz licence and means that they don’t have to stop operating or replace their 28 GHz infrastructure with costly alternatives. Especially smaller operators, where a substantial amount of revenue is based on their 28 GHz infrastructure, have peace of mind that their investment is not tied to a single fixed period and will continue to grow their RoI. As a result of indefinite licensing, the spectrum value does not decrease over time in the same way as before. In contrary, more recently, the 28 GHz bands gained much more global attention as it is seen as a potential contender to be included in harmonised 5G spectrum. This would have major impact on the value of 28 GHz spectrum and support the growth of the ecosystem.
Ofcom has been aware of how important it is to keep investment levels high in spectrum related infrastructure and therefore the change to “indefinite term” should help to stimulate the industry. Further to the above, Ofcom introduced permitted spectrum trading in 2004 as a way of promoting innovation and competition in the supply of wireless services. But it is also as a way to enable entities with demand to acquire a licence from those in the market either not using, or planning to stop using the spectrum or looking to dispose of their licence and therefore ensures the spectrum is actively being used.
A recent high profile and high value spectrum trade is Qualcomm’s sale of the 1.4 GHz band, which it had acquired in 2008 for £8.3m, to both Vodafone (1452-1472MHz) and Three (1472-1492MHz). This sale was rumoured to have cost the MNOs almost £100m due to growing demand for data and the increasingly sparse quantity of sub-6 GHz spectrum available.
We have even seen many more spectrum trades as a result. I actually orchestrated the very first post-auction spectrum trade between companies in the UK in January 2009 between Broadnet UK Ltd and Luminet (formerly Urban Wimax), where I was CTO at the time. We acquired a 28 GHz Fixed Wireless Access licence (2 x 128 MHz) which contributed considerably to Luminet’s revenue stream since 2009 where we used 28 GHz Point-to-Multipoint kit to provide connectivity to businesses in London.
The introduction of indefinite licences means this will be an interesting time for network operators, a situation that many will be watching closely. It remains to be seen just how much these Ofcom licence fee proposals will impact the value of spectrum licences, but I for one am glad to see these new changes come into effect.