Spectrum dispute holding up Virgin Mobile's Argentina debut

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A dispute in Argentina over the use of the 700Mhz band in Buenos Aires is holding back the market debut of MVNO Virgin Mobile.

In resolutions 2137/2017 and 2153/2017 published in the official gazette this week, telecom watchdog Enacom gave Virgin Mobile and local company Teledifusora (which offers internet and pay TV in the Santiago del Estero, Salta and Rosario provinces) the final go-ahead to operate in the country, after granting an initial approval last August.

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However, according to local analyst Enrique Carrier, the firms will be unable to start operations until they have negotiated terms to use the network of one of the three largest mobile operators – Personal, Movistar or Claro.

"Despite receiving the go-ahead, the situation doesn't change much for the company given that they don't yet have an agreement with the main telcos to start operating," Carrier told BNamericas.

A report by iProfessional stated that the three main mobile operators have been slow to negotiate terms to lease their networks to MVNOs until spectrum licenses to use the 700MHz band in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan area have been handed over by watchdog Enacom

Licenses for the 700MHz band were awarded in December 2014 and have been delivered for all of the country except Buenos Aires. In the capital, triple play provider Telecentro has failed to hand back to authorities 700MHz spectrum it holds and has been using for TV services.

Telecentro is also a holder of the country's third MVNO license, in addition to Virgin Mobile and Teledifusora. Personal has reportedly asked for an extension in providing the price reference terms needed to negotiate with MVNOs until it receives the full 700MHz license, while Claro and Movistar have reportedly presented their proposals but have been dragging their heels in negotiating with MVNOs.

The Virgin Mobile franchise licensed by Richard Branson already operates in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, and has been granted a license for Ecuador, where it reportedly plans to launch mid-year.

According to Carrier, the success of the new MVNOs in Argentina will depend on their business models. Despite operating in Chile since 2012, Virgin Mobile Chile is still a niche player with only 450,000 customers, although it has seen strong growth in recent months.

Telecentro and Teledifusora, on the other hand, have established distribution and points of presence – and mobile will just be an additional offering to their triple or double play services.

"Telecentro may be able to subsidize mobile telephony through its other services and it won't depend on mobile, unlike Virgin," Carrier said.

Since taking office in December 2015, President Mauricio Macri's administration has opened up competition in the telecom market by approving the sale of Telecom Italia's controlling stake in Telecom Argentina to investment company Fintech, as well as Grupo Clarin's acquisition of Nextel. The government will also allow telecom companies to begin offering TV services starting 2018.

The administration has also stirred controversy in the market by allowing Clarín – through a series of acquisitions last year – to snap up valuable spectrum at bargain prices, in contrast to other established players that paid much more for their licenses.