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.