Telcos howl, markets hail German 5G auction as newcomer joins fray

Published 14.06.2019 00:01

Germany's pricey 5G spectrum auction drew protests from existing mobile operators but cheered investors betting the entry of a new player will revive competition and help close a connectivity gap with the United States and Japan.

For market leader Deutsche Telekom the auction, which ran for a record 12 weeks and raised 6.55 billion euros ($7.4 billion), left a bitter aftertaste while rival Vodafone called the result catastrophic.

Markus Haas, CEO of Telefonica Deutschland, said yesterday he would press ahead with litigation already filed in protest at auction terms he called unfair.

"We must learn from our mistakes, and from other top 5G nations that are a good nose-length ahead of us," he told reporters. "We have blown this chance - the money is going to the finance ministry and not into building networks."

Markets took a different view after 1&1 Drillisch, the mobile upstart run by billionaire Ralph Dommermuth, bagged the spectrum he needs to realize his dream of becoming Germany's fourth network operator. Shares in 1&1 Drillisch, hitherto a ‘virtual' player that rented network access from others, rallied by up to 7%. They had lost half their value over the past year on concerns that heavy network outlays would wreck its profitable asset-light model. United Internet, which controls Drillisch and is also run by Dommermuth, gained 5%.

"We're happy with the spectrum we got

– and the price we paid for it," Dommermuth's spokesman said after Drillisch paid 1.07 billion euros for 70 Megaherz of the 420 MHz allocated by the Federal Network Regulator (BNetzA). Analysts say Dommermuth played a shrewd poker hand because, even after buying spectrum, he is not pre-committed to building his own network and can bargain from a position of greater strength on network access with the existing operators. Drillisch had a strong management team that was exploring options "to improve an existing, sustainable business", said Jefferies analyst Ulrich Rathe. Europe's largest economy scores poorly on measures of connectivity - in part the result of high spectrum costs that have over the years driven mobile industry consolidation, leaving just three networks operators standing.

The Federation of German Industry said that, now the auction was over, it was vital to support industrial digitalization - networks to run connected factories are one 5G use - to ensure that Germany keeps its export edge.

"The goal must be to provide industry with the world's fastest and safest networks," the federation said on yesterday.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz pledged to plough 70% of the auction proceeds back into upgrading Germany's fibre-optic broadband networks, with the remaining 30% supporting digital schooling. Germany is lagging countries like the United States, Japan and Korea that are already starting to roll out 5G services.

Vodafone's Germany boss Hannes Ametsreiter called for some of the proceeds to subsidise mobile network investments as part of a broader 5G industry alliance.

Operators complain that other European countries have either awarded 5G spectrum for free, like Finland, or more cheaply, like Austria. Germany's auction proceeds would be enough to erect 50,000 mobile masts, said Ametsreiter.

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