License IV

France went for a hybrid or double-stage solution to their 3G dilemma : since no 4th operator could enter the market without a ticket discount for all players (see "3G license part III - France's fourth wedding or a funeral ?"), the Government and NRA ARCEP decided to split the remaining spectrum.

The potential new entrant will get 5 MHz of 2.1 GHz + 5 MHz of 900 MHz (call for tender expected by EOY 2009), and lawmakers will discuss about what to do of the last 10 MHz of 2.1 GHz, probably putting back incumbents in the loop (friendly auction ?), and about how much this license will cost. I guess a little bit more than the EUR 10,000 a year needed for a Licence IV, which allows bars to sell alcohol without dishes (I mean dishes for food, not for satellite access).

The almost concomitant consultation about 4G allows incumbents to fry some fish or remain one step ahead. Analogic TV spectrum (the 2.6 GHz and 790-862 MHz bands favored by LTE) will be freed in November 2011.

An ambitious new entrant should position itself on both 3G and 4G, as well as on the fixed broadband last mile, where ARCEP is carefully monitoring the development of FTTH / FTTO : trials are under way (until March 31st), and a precise regulatory framework will be published before this summer.

Without a claim by Iliad/Free, the Regulator wouldn't have reserved 3M numbers starting with 06 for the new entrant, who would then have mostly to rely on 07 numbers, soon to be devoted to the same purpose.

Strong of more than 4M subscribers and on the way to 5M by EOY 2011, Iliad-Free remains the front runner and main lobbyist for the 4th license. The company already brought major disruptions to the French market, starting with their ISP business model as none Networks, and most dramatically by introducing the successful home "box" concept, now implemented by all incumbents (Orange Livebox, SFR Box, Bouygues Bbox). In an agressive lobbying campaign, Free announced 1,000 euros savings per year per household with 3 mobile subscriptions. With brand new pipes to fill, unlimited offers seem likely.

But it may take a new and wealthy partner (not a commodity nowadays) to build the said pipes : optic fibers were already a major challenge on the fixed access with a EUR 1bn CAPEX planned by 2012, but covering a country as geographically challenging as France with a 3G network is quite another.

That, or another disruptive "none Networks" model... not to mention "other networks" : Free already holds the only national WiMAX license*.

Or "another player", or course. Foreign (ie Orascom and the usual suspect...), national (some day, Carlyle will have to monetize Numericable's 4M subs), or more probably a combo of the two. But the deepest pockets could hesitate between player #4 and player #3, should Martin Bouygues seize the opportunity of this reshuffle to sell its mobile arm.

Yet another scenario ? No one goes for the network. Incumbents won't accept too cheap a price tag nor too loose coverage obligations for the new entrant... even if Bouygues Telecom was not precisely crushed for being behind schedule.

addendum 20090205

The price tag is eventually EUR 206M per 5MHz, similar to the 619M paid by each incumbent for their 15MHz load. Free may only take 5MHz, but the Government reminded the audience the existence of coverage obligations, insisting on a contribution for rural areas...

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