Mobile auction claims Murdoch as latest victim

The final stage of the auction for next-generation mobile phone licences kicks off today with total bids nudging £13bn, but it could be suspended at any time by one of the eight remaining bidders.

This is the result of an unusual rule that allows any bidder - once five of the original 13 have withdrawn - to request a one-day recess. The provision came into play after the final round of bidding yesterday when One.Tel, the Australian consortium backed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, withdrew.

Remaining in the auction are the four incumbent operators - BT Cellnet, One2One, Vodafone AirTouch and Orange - along with WorldCom, NTL Mobile, Telefonica and TIW.

Last night analysts were speculating over which companies would join the five who have already walked away from the auction. "The next to go will be TIW, probably followed by WorldCom, leaving NTL and Telefonica to battle it out," said an analyst with a US investment bank.

After the 92nd round, Vodafone continued in pole position for licence B, which offers the most frequency to an incumbent operator, with a bid of £2.99bn. WorldCom stayed in top spot for licence A, the biggest frequency block reserved for a new operator, bidding £2.73bn.

Telefonica prevailed in the bid for licence C with a £2.42bn offer, while One2One led in the contest for licence E, bidding £2.45bn. TIW returned to the top table with an offer of £2.34bn for licence D.

The rationale for the hefty bids for next-generation licences was underlined by new figures showing strong mobile subscriber growth in the first quarter. Third-generation licences will include new revenue opportunities such as mobile internet access.

Orange led the way, adding 1.08 million net new users, giving it 5.98 million users. Vodafone placed third with 851,000 new users for a leading total of 8.8 million.

One2One, including Virgin Mobile, which uses its network, came second in the quarter with 861,000 new customers, taking it to 5.02 million. BT Cellnet, which had rebounded in recent quarters, slid into fourth place as it added 457,000 new customers, although it remains number two overall with just over 7.4 million users.

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