Is there room for a fourth mobile network in Australia?
It seems that we are about to find out, with TPG emerging as the main buyer of spectrum recently auctioned by the ACMA. The company has said that it intends to roll out a network to achieve 80% population coverage over the next three years.
TPG paid a whopping $1.26 billion – well above the ACMA reserve - for 2x10MHz of low-band 700MHz. It adds this to earlier spectrum purchases in the 2.5 GHz and 1800MHz bands bought in 2013 and 2016.
Industry analysts have expressed doubts as to whether the Australian market is large enough to sustain another mobile operator, especially as 5G looms. The costs associated with that generation of mobiles are expected to lead, if anything, to a reduction in the number of players.
On the other hand, TPG is not starting from scratch. It already has extensive fibre backhaul assets and a significant customer base, including some half a million mobile customers (via resale).
And it has shown itself adept at exploiting market and regulatory opportunities in its Fibre-to-the-Basement play in competition with the NBN.
The market, however, remains to be convinced. TPG’s share price dropped 18% when it came out of the trading halt it initiated while it raised $400 million towards its network roll-out.
Telstra’s share price has also taken a hit, falling some 7% since the TPG move was announced. In the longer term, though, it could be Optus and Vodafone who feel the most heat as four providers compete in a market which may eventually support only two 5G network operators.