20070309

3G license part III - France's fourth wedding or a funeral ?

France's NRA, the ARCEP, reopened the 3G beauty contest for a fourth license : previous tenders were launched in August 2000 (SFR and Orange got their pass in June 2001) and December 2001 (Bouygues Telecom in December 2002). The price tag remains at EUR 619.2M (+1% of the turnover afterwards), and the first contenders look as French as the 3 incumbents.
They also look less like "beauty pageants" than like brides looking for grooms : even with reasonable coverage obligations (Bouygtel still hasn't launched but must cover 20% by April 2007), 2G national roaming agreements, and site sharing opportunities, neither Iliad / Free nor Noos / Numericable can really afford 3G as they are today, especially with their ambitious FTTH rollout plans. Iliad and Noos are even considering same-sex marriage to strenghten their position on the French market.

Who would invest in a greenfield venture with such tenderfeet ? At a time when even a Vodafone takes some distance with network management ?

Actually, the main bidders are the 3G license holders who want to get a slice of spectrum leftovers and pushed for the consultation last year. What's up for grabs ? 2*15 MHz FDD + 5 MHz TDD in the 2 GHz range. Note the FDD and TDD thing, plus the "UMTS" title over the ARCEP communique : if you intend to seize the opportunity and promote an alternative 3G technology, go knock at some other door*.

So here we have a minister saying "let them now speak, or forever remain silent" without even having a marriage to perform. Actually, his job seems to make sure no wedding will ever take place.

France is too busy filing for divorce with new entrants. And as usual, people are fighting over child care. No price tag is set yet for this not-born / not-borne spectrum. Fish to fry and money to collect for France's next president.

Big operators also put a lock on digital radio : the government seems to be pushing T-DMB instead of DAB, more popular among small players. The winners in digital TV (TNT) were also major players (TF1, France Televisions, Canal+, Lagardere...). Everywhere, infrastructure and operating know-how remain the best barriers to entry. To become a big fish in the pond, you either have to invest in them (ie NRJ Group with Towercast) or to build a media empire as quickly as possible (ie Bollore).

* 3G is mentioned in the ARCEP annex as IMT 2000. The recent courting of the ITU by WiMAX (see "3G & 4G - WiMAX flirts with ITU" - 20070303) adds some spice to the affair, considering Free already holds WiMAX licenses (recycled WLL).



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