After nearly one month, 165 rounds and $87.4 billion Taiwan New Dollar (US$2.91 billion) in bids, Taiwan's 5G spectrum auction is still not done and operators are calling for help.
"The train has stalled and the five passengers on board have been injured," said Rachel Liu, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Telecommunications Industry Development Association (TTIDA), referring to the five telco bidders.
The problem is a lack of spectrum in the key 3.5GHz band.
Just 270MHz is on offer, with a maximum allocation of 100MHz per operator, meaning only two players can get the full complement. (By comparison, Japan's four operators have each been allocated 100MHz in the 3.5GHz band.)
Hence the intense bidding between Chunghwa Telecom, FarEasTone, Taiwan Mobile, Asia-Pacific Telecom and Taiwan Star.
The total sum bid has blown way past the NT$44 billion ($1.47 billion) target set by the National Communications Commission (NCC), as well as the NT$60 billion ($2 billion) forecast by analysts.
The auction began on December 10 with three blocks of spectrum on offer: 270MHz in the 3.5GHz band, 2500MHz in 28GHz and 20MHz in 1800MHz.
Since then, bidders have committed NT$85.8 billion for the 3.5GHz frequencies and NT$1.6 billion for 28GHz.
The 1800MHz auction has been a bust, with not a single bid received. That may because of the attention on 3.5GHz, but even so, the NCC has made clear it sees the 1800 band as a key part of 5G: The NCC has said it expects operators will use 3.5GHz for the downlink and 1800MHz for the uplink.
The massive sum already bid in the auction is raising anxiety across the industry. Operators were unnerved by the acceleration of the 5G timetable last year as the government strove to keep pace with regional rivals like Japan and Singapore, where 5G services are expected to launch in the middle of 2020.
Their mood hasn't been helped by the economic ministry canvassing the opening up of spectrum for enterprise use while putting the operators through a stressful and expensive auction.
Consumers aren't overly enthusiastic about 5G, either: A survey by a local think-tank, the 21st Century Foundation, found 73% won't pay more than NT$1,000 ($33.28) a month for a 5G service, roughly in line with the cost of a mid-range 4G deal.
TTIDA's Liu says 80% of the value of 5G will lie in the verticals and called on the government to take timely action to compensate for the overpriced spectrum: She says the 5G spectrum should be exempted from frequency usage charges.
Additionally, the telcos needed the government to offer incentives to promote vertical services and because of the short 5G timetable, operators should be given more time to build up vertical partnerships ahead of any release of 5G spectrum for enterprise use, argue the operators and their supporters.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading