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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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