In the initial years of wireless telephony in India, radio spectrum was administratively allotted to licensees. However, following the recommendations of the National Telecom Policy, 2012, and the decision of the Apex Court in the case of Centre for Public Interest Litigation v. Union of India, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) de-bundled spectrum allotment from the grant of licenses, and adopted an auction-based price-discovery mechanism for spectrum allotment.
Scarce radio spectrum resources have typically been considered as bottleneck assets, and therefore auctions provide an effective means of price discovery, help maximise revenue for the Government, and ensure optimal allocation of spectrum resources. However, excessive reliance on bid markets risks overlooking potential market failures attributable to enterprises attempting to monopolise bottleneck assets such as spectrum.
Recognising the need to ensure that no one operator should be able to monopolise scarce spectrum resources to the detriment of its competitors and consumers, the DoT, in successive Notice Inviting Applications (NIAs) has prescribed ceilings for the amount of spectrum that can be held by any telecommunications operator in a given band within a Licensed Service Area (LSA), as well as a ceiling on the total amount of spectrum that can be held by an operator across all bands in an LSA. Presently, these stand at 50% of any given spectrum band in an LSA, and 25% of the overall spectrum available in such LSA across all bands. These restrictions have also been incorporated into the Mergers and Acquisitions Guidelines of 2014 (M&A Guidelines) as prescribed by the DoT.