Just a fraction of airwaves put on sale by the Indian government has raised $9.9 billion

Airwave wars.
Airwave wars.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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India’s largest telecom spectrum auction is over, and the government’s made some serious money.

In all, it raised Rs65,800 crore ($9.8 billion), about 11% of the Rs5.6 lakh crore ($84 billion) that the total airwaves on offer were valued at. Of the total amount raised, the government will receive Rs32,000 crore upfront.

The big surprise, however, was the somewhat tepid response from telecom operators. The auction was expected to be competitive since the highest-quality 700 Mhz spectrum band, ideal for 4G services, was going under the hammer for the first time. But, eventually, it received no bids, partly because of the sky-high pricing.

“The lack of enthusiasm was majorly due to its unrealistic pricing, high debt and single-digit growth that the industry is currently reeling under,” Cellular Operators Association of India, an industry lobby group, told Bloomberg.

The government seems unfazed, though.

“Maybe the operators are not ready… it is not that the 700MHz is running away. If it was not sold this time, it will be next time… we are happy that the upfront payment we will get is the highest ever, in the last five years,” Manoj Sinha, India’s minister of state for communication, told The Hindu newspaper.

Telecom operators in Asia’s third-largest economy are already under the pressure of piling debt—currently at Rs4.1 lakh crore—curtailing their capacity to splurge.

Nonetheless, fuelled by the newly-acquired airwaves, competition is about to intensify. The entry of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio has already ruffled feathers with its cheap internet and free voice calls. In response, others are building up their war chests. Last month, for instance, Vodafone India’s parent firm pumped in equity worth $7 billion to help it buy more spectrum and bolster its infrastructure.