In Business Model, Internet Access, Mobile, Spectrum

Will spectrum abundance help or harm incumbent spectrum users? In the past, under conditions of scarcity, it has typically been argued that there were incentives for some forms of  incumbent behavior not seen as helpful. Spectrum hoarding, to deny resource use to competitors, is one example of an unwanted social effect, though it might be deemed rational from a firm perspective.

The big issue is whether new ways to use and share spectrum, plus such huge increases in available spectrum for commercial purposes, will so vastly affect the scarcity assumption–replacing it with an assumption of abundance–that some forms of distortion will make less sense.

Other angles: will spectrum now become a smaller part of the spending any service provider has to anticipate to build a business? In some cases, that clearly will be true. But it might be a real issue even for firms that historically rely on licensed spectrum as a foundation of the business.

On the other hand, spectrum might represent only a mid-single digits percentage of total mobile operator costs, best case. Historically, spectrum has had value far beyond its cost since–without it–one could not be in the mobile business at all. In that sense, adequate spectrum is a bit closer to a “license to operate” than a driver of business cost.

On the other hand, there are some markets where spectrum is a much-bigger component of cost.

Though Indian mobile operators were quite prudent in the 2016 auctions, which netted only about 11 percent of government expectations, they would have faced ruin, had they paid the full expected prices, which would have made spectrum 67 percent of total revenue, for example.

Instead (and obviously driven by a clear understanding of the business case), India’s operators spent about 11 percent of the government’s stated minimum prices. Though higher than similar costs in other markets, that is an important benchmark. Operators paid about as much as they have been paying (as a percentage of expected revenue).

On the other hand, huge businesses are built on unlicensed spectrum, and much more spectrum of that type is coming, in the U.S. market. By definition, app and service firms do not pay for use of such spectrum, so that is a zero cost of getting into business.

So one way of looking at matters is that, in some large markets, licensed spectrum–the right to be in business-might represent mid-single digits to 11 percent or so of business costs. That means licensed spectrum represents mostly the right to be in a particular line of business, with a cost penalty–compared to a firm using unlicensed spectrum–that might range from four to 11 percent per year. That is significant, but arguably less important than other elements of business strategy.

In the scarcity era, licensed spectrum had most value as a “license to be in business.” That could well change in the abundance era, when spectrum will become less a license to operate and more a core capacity input that can be “created” in a number of ways (smaller cells, better radios, spectrum sharing, bonding of licensed and unlicensed spectrum).

Spectrum still will be important. It just not be as important, or as costly, as in the past era of scarcity.

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