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Hong Kong’s hybrid approach to 3G spectrum renewal creates a “freerider” problem for the incumbents

Hong Kong’s Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) has decided to adopt a hybrid approach to the renewal of incumbents’ 3G spectrum. OFCA will distribute two thirds of the spectrum to the incumbents through an administered allocation process and the remaining third will be put up for auction. The incumbents have the opportunity to reacquire the spectrum through the auction but it also opens up the opportunity for a new player (and many are speculating the China Mobile Hong Kong is the primary candidate) to acquire the spectrum.

When incumbents value spectrum one of the most significant sources of spectrum value attributed to spectrum in an auction is the ability to block new market entry. This “blocking value” can be very high for incumbents, especially in mature markets, as a new player seeking to win share to drive economies of scale often sparks a value destroying pricing or commission war – the experience of Three entering the UK market is a good case in point.

China Mobile may place a high strategic value on gaining access to 3G spectrum in Hong Kong and so the cost of blocking in the auction could be high. All the incumbents have an incentive to block new market entry. However, in an ideal world an incumbent would prefer “freeride” and rely on another incumbent to pay any premium for market entry. This creates a coordination problem for the incumbents and this risk is that they fail to “reach agreement” through their bidding strategies as to who will take the responsibility for blocking. The result may well be that new entry occurs despite all incumbents being heavily incentivised to avoid it.

Written by Graham Friend, Managing Director, Coleago Consulting

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