MBIE has opened registration for the first 5G spectrum auction, which will start on March 30.
But there will be no bidding frenzy a la the 4G auction in 2014, when a $22m reserve was smashed in the final round of bidding and the Crown realised $259m as Spark spent a total $149m, Vodafone $66m and 2degrees $44m.
At least with the initial 5G auction (more spectrum will be on the block for post-2022), Communications Minister Kris Faafoi has backed boosting competition with bidding-limits over maximising the return to the Crown.
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Interested parties have to sign on by March 13. Beyond obvious contenders Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees, UK company Dense Air (more on which below) could be in the frame.
The auction will also take place against a background of industry intrigue. Jarden analyst Arie Dekker says Sky is "increasingly motivated" to push landline and mobile broadband. A Sky-Chorus partnership has been mooted, with Dekker mulling the possibility that Chorus buys 2degrees' mobile network, then turns it into a wholesale play.
MBIE says will be a total of 16 lots available covering the frequency range from 3.59 to 3.75 GHz, or 160MHz total. Each lot will be 10MHz, with a reserve price of $250,000 - meaning the Government will reap a minimum $4m.
That's chump-change compared to the 4G bonanza.
But this is just the warm-up, with truncated two-year licences on offer as the Government seeks to give itself breathing space to resolve a Treaty claim on spectrum.
A round of auctions for long-term licences post-2022 will take place later, Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says. Telcos expect this will include millimetre bands that will allow for faster 5G.
Cap on bids
While the 2014 auction was all about maximising Crown coffers, Communications Minister Kris Faafoi flagged in mid-December that a cap would be placed on how much 5G spectrum each player could bid for - the better to boost mobile market competition.
No single player will be able to bid more for more than 40MHz, or four lots - although there will be scope to bid for more if any lots go unsold.
Another key element is that 3.5GHz spectrum auction owners will have to hand back the spectrum they currently own before the auction - a provision that's primarily of concern to Vodafone as the only telco with a substantial 3.5GHz holding.
"That's a big tick. The Government has been listening," 2degrees spokesman Mat Bolland said in December.
However, there is a twist in MBIE's provisions. That is, existing 3.5GHZ holders will get a discount tied to the amount of spectrum they return. How much of a discount? An MBIE spokeswoman said, "We plan to release further details about the discount, and other aspects of the auction, over the next few weeks."
Māori can on-sell special allocation
Another key provision revealed by Faafoi in mid-December was that a 50MHz block of 3.5GHz spectrum would be allocated to iwi - also on a short-term basis until October 2022.
The minister's office told the Herald there would be no commercial restrictions on how iwi used the spectrum - meaning it could be immediately sold or leased to Vodafone, Spark or 2degrees, allowing one or all of the telcos to top-up whatever airwaves they win at the auction.
There is a precedent.
At the 3G auction in 2001, the Labour government of the day allocated a chunk of spectrum at a low price to Te Huarahi Tika Trust - a pan-iwi group set up to advance Māori interests in 3G spectrum. The trust parlayed its spectrum into a stake in the company now known as 2degrees - a development that most pundits saw as a boon for consumers
5G rollouts already underway
Vodafone launched 5G at 100 cell sites across Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown in December, using a 53MHz chunk of 3.5GHz spectrum it inherited with its purchase of TelstraClear. The telco has previously said it has ambitions to own 100MHz post-auction.
The previous month saw Spark launch fixed-wireless 5G in a series of South Island towns, using spectrum leased from UK company Dense Air - which in November 2018 paid $25.7m to acquire a 70MHz chunk of 2.5GHz spectrum from Craig Wireless and rich lister Malcolm Dick's Blue Reach Wireless.
Spark is angling to launch its first 5G mobile service in July, working with the recently drafted-in Nokia Networks and Samsung as Huawei remains sidelined by the GCSB.
2degrees has yet to set a timetable for its 5G upgrade.