4G auction raises £1bn less than expected

£3.5bn has been pre-spent; just £2.35bn will be arriving in the coffers.

The auction for the 4G mobile communications spectrum has raised just £2.34bn, over £1bn short of expectations. Since the money has been effectively pre-spent by the chancellor in the most recent budget, the discrepancy will be extremely problematic for the Government's budget plans.

The £2.34bn will buy five companies — EE, 3, O2, Vodafone and a new operator "Niche Spectrum Ventures Ltd" (owned by BT)  — access to the 4G spectrum. This will allow those operators to run mobile broadband throughout much of the UK, and is partly enabled by the switch-off of analogue TV, which freed up part of the 4G spectrum for alternative use.

While the Chancellor was apparently greedy in assuming that Britain could earn £3.5bn from the sale of the spectrum, the last auction like this, held under Gordon Brown's treasury, raised £22bn. But the 3G sale was markedly different from the 4G one. Held in the midst of the dot-com boom, the hope for revenue from the new technology was inflated beyond the realms of possibility, and a concerted PR campaign on the part of the government running for three years beforehand ensured that hype reached fever pitch.

Take, for example, Webvan. The company was founded with the promise of same-day delivery in the San Francisco area on a number of basic products — it was, basically, Ocado. But unlike Ocado, it had a market cap post-IPO of $8bn. Ocado, undoubtedly better than Webvan in every aspect, but ten years later, went for a quarter of that. In other words: the 2010s are not the 2000s when it comes to making big money from technology.

The 3G auction was also successful, however, in managing expectations. The general assumption was that "licences would sell for a total of about £2-4 billion", according to Ken Binmore and Paul Klemperer, authors of the definitive look at the auction. If this Chancellor has made one mistake, it was overinflating expectations — and if he's made two, it was writing those overinflated expectations into the nation's budget. His hubris will sting this morning.

4G iPads. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR