Proposed legislation that would allow Spain's mobile operators to trade the spectrum they have under license could be passed this year.
Spectrum trading, which would allow operators to sell the rights to use either part or all of the spectrum they have been apportioned under their license terms, is currently not allowed in Europe, though there is mounting pressure from many operators for it to be legalized.
Spain's science and technology minister, Josep Pique, told a press conference that, although the proposal would not allow continual ad hoc trading of spectrum, it would allow the trading of radio spectrum "in order to save specific commercial or scientific projects."
Pique has previously advocated infrastructure sharing, referring to the potential for the joint use of wireless networks as "common sense." A combination of network sharing and spectrum trading would create some interesting opportunities for Spain's four 3G license-holders -- the three existing GSM operators and a 3G newcomer.
The GSM operators are: Telefónica Móviles SA, which has just over 18 million subscribers, or 56 percent of the market; Vodafone Spain, which has 8.2 million customers, giving it 25.5 percent market share; and Amena, which, with 6 million subscribers, has about 18.6 percent of the total market.
The fourth 3G license holder is Xfera, a newcomer that has been "mothballed" by its various shareholders because of continual delays in the availability of the required infrastructure and handsets. Those shareholders include TeliaSonera, which is concentrating on Scandinavia and the Baltics and involving itself as little as legally possible elsewhere, and Vivendi Universal, which is concentrating on its domestic market in France and on surviving financially.
Market watchers do not hold out much hope that Xfera will make it to commercial 3G launch, and the coupling of spectrum trading and network sharing could make it easier for the newcomer to sell the bandwidth it owns to operators that will actually use it.
Stephen Pentland, a partner at Spectrum Strategy Consultants, believes the introduction of spectrum trading in any country could lead to the creation of "special purpose vehicles" to build shared networks that would then be used by a number of service providers without adversely affecting competition. "It would also allow for straightforward consolidation where the spectrum could be pooled. At the moment, if two operators merged, one license would have to be handed back," but spectrum trading would allow the single company to retain all the assets.
Pentland adds that mergers or acquisitions might happen anyway: "We believe there is the potential for further consolidation in Western Europe, with or without spectrum trading, especially in markets such as the U.K."
Bena Roberts, an analyst in the wireless services Europe division of Current Analysis, has "thought for a long time that Xfera's days are limited, and this is unlikely to change even if spectrum trading is passed." In addition, she believes that, as the EU has in essence given its blessing for individual countries to be more "flexible" in wireless matters, "I am sure that spectrum trading will become more common across Europe." (See Carriers Take Heart From EC.)
The legislation is set to be submitted to Spain's cabinet in February, and could be approved before the summer recess in August, according to Pique.
Should it be passed, and given that the Spanish government has recently indicated its willingness to help the operators cope with the uncertainty of 3G developments, it is quite possible that Xfera could bail out of the 3G market, or enter into a network and spectrum sharing agreement with one or more of the other license holders (see Spain Offers 3G Respite).
Minister Pique was keen to reject the idea that the proposed legislation is a neat way of opening the exit door for Xfera and that the recent relaxation of investment guarantees would reignite the greenfield operator.
So we called the carriers to gauge their reactions, but, as the whole of Europe has either not bothered to return to work this week, or everyone's on unbelievably long vacations, we have no idea what the operators think of the proposal. And we're not calling them mañana, either.
— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung