Whose Mine Is It Anyway?
The operators object to paying taxpayers for something they'll use to make money - spectrum. Who doesn't like getting things for free, after all?
But the real problem is the idea of an auction. Established operators would, of course, always prefer a beauty parade, because they really have to mess up to lose out. An auction may bring in new players who don't have to justify anything but simply have to prove financial resources. And that poses a real threat.
As a consumer, it's easy. I want more choice. I want more innovation. And I don't want operators to sit on spectrum they've bought (sometimes by buying a company or merging operations), I want it to be used to my benefit.
But that doesn't make me a total fan of the auction mechanism. By nature, it moves money out of building an operation and into the pocket of the Government. It's a direct tax on innovation, not an enabler of it. It's better than the beauty parade, but it doesn't give me what I actually want, because it doesn't open up the market nearly enough. In fact, we've seen in the UK and elsewhere how new entrants tend to merge, because they get to share costs, and as competition reduces so does price pressure.
It seems to me that, faced with the legal threats, Ofcom might do well to consider a completely separate option.
My favoured direction would be to allocate some, if not all, of the available spectrum on the basis of a wholesale-only licence, with some additional light touch regulation to ensure, for instance, that the wholesaler was obliged to offer fair terms to any and every prospective customer.
This wouldn't remove the requirement for prospective network operators to gain licences any more than at present. And it would need to define service boundaries in ways that fit current 4G technologies. That feels slightly uncomfortable, but there's no real prospect of operators doing anything else in the short to medium term.
This would create the right conditions for competition, and accelerate progress to widespread use and innovative application of 4G. And for the established operators, it would guarantee that they can all have access to 4G as and when they want it - as can anyone else who obtains an appropriate licence and agrees terms with the wholesaler.
As a taxpayer, I like the idea of an auction, but it doesn't have to take the primary form of an up-front payment. Retailers in transport locations often pay a combination of a fixed fee and a percentage of actual turnover, and the licensor may be entitled to take back a location that fails to perform. Something of this sort could work in 4G too.