5206.0 - Australian National Accounts: National Income Expenditure and Product, Jun 2003  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2001   
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Special Article - Treatment of 3G Spectrum licences

Back to Main Features 5206.0
Australian National Accounts: National Income, Expenditure and Product

This article is published in Australian National Accounts: National Income Expenditure and Product (Cat. no. 5206.0)


Over the last year and most recently in March 2001 the Commonwealth Government has auctioned licences to operate certain bands of the radio wave spectrum. The latest licences to be auctioned are commonly referred to as the third generation (3G) spectrum licences. The use of part of the spectrum for new forms of communication technology is widely seen as an important development. Recently, many countries have allocated licences to use the spectrum either through an auctioning process or through a simple allocation of rights to certain operators. Auctions both here and abroad have generated significant sums of money. Accordingly, the treatment of the flows, both financial and non-financial, within the national accounts is of interest. This article explains the issues involved and the treatment that will be adopted in the Australian System of National Accounts (ASNA).


The critical issue in determining the appropriate treatment of the licences is the definition of an asset. The international standards on national accounting (System of National Accounts 1993 (SNA93)), with which the ASNA is consistent, does not deal explicitly with the case of spectrum licences and thus their treatment must be determined from the economic principles underlying the accounts. SNA93 defines an asset as

    'entities (a) over which ownership rights are enforced by institutional units, individually or collectively; and (b) from which economic benefits may be derived by their owners by holding them, or using them, over a period of time.' (SNA93, 10.2, p 217).

In the recognition of an economic asset and hence the enforcement of ownership rights the following factors are relevant considerations:
  • the ability of the seller to cancel access to the asset
  • the degree of exclusiveness and control the purchaser has in deriving economic benefits
  • the potential to resell the asset (transferability)
  • the existence of demonstrable value
  • the expected asset life


Application of the general definition and the factors listed above to the spectrum licence question identifies two possible assets-the spectrum itself and the licence. International discussion on this topic has concluded that the spectrum itself is an asset which should be recognised as being of economic value from the time at which the licence is issued. The spectrum is classified as a tangible, non-produced asset along with assets such as land and subsoil assets. Although the spectrum itself has no physical substance, it is naturally occurring which is the primary criterion for being a tangible asset. Intangible non-produced assets, as will be explained, are different in character.

The value of the spectrum should be based on net present value considerations-that is, valuation will involve estimating the discounted future stream of income that the asset is expected to generate. In general this will be at least the value of licences but to the extent that the spectrum will be used beyond the lifetime of the licences then additional income flows will need to be considered. The recognition of the spectrum as an asset means that an existing phenomenon has demonstrable value. Consequently, the recognition of this value is recorded in the other changes in the volume of assets account and not as a transaction between economic agents.


The treatment of the payments to governments for the rights to use the spectrum has been the subject of more debate internationally. Two primary alternatives have been identified:
  • the treatment of the payments as the purchase and sale of an intangible non-produced asset; and
  • the treatment of the payments as rent, equivalent to rents payable on land.

Intangible non-produced assets are defined in SNA93 as constructs of society. Examples include patented entities, some leases and purchased goodwill. The key aspects from the perspective of the spectrum licence are that the purchaser takes over the risks and benefits of operation of the licence and that the licence is issued for a considerable period of time. In the Australian context the licence agreements fulfil the considerations outlined above and thus, in the ASNA, the payments for the licences will be shown as the purchase and sale of an intangible non-produced asset, the spectrum licence. This treatment has no impact on measures of saving or GDP.

The alternative treatment impacts on measures of saving but, like the first treatment, it has no impact on the measurement of GDP since rent on tangible non-produced assets is treated as property income and not as intermediate consumption. However, under the second treatment it is not possible to recognise that the operating business-the licence holder-has an asset. To the extent that risks and benefits are not transferred from the government to purchaser, this treatment may be appropriate but it is not applicable in the Australian situation.


Recognition of the payments as the purchase of an asset has the following implications:
  • the asset is non-produced, and therefore there is no fixed capital formation and hence no impact on GDP;
  • likewise, there is no consumption of fixed capital and hence no impact on sectoral saving; and
  • the acquisition and disposal of non-produced, non-financial assets is recognised in the capital account, and thus the purchase impacts on net lending/borrowing estimates by sector.


The value of the licence must be linked to the auction price. As noted, the value of the spectrum is also linked to this price but may be higher due to a longer expected asset life. However, an offset is required in the accounts to limit the total value that is added to net worth. In effect, the sum of the value of the two assets cannot be greater than the value of the spectrum. In practice this requires that the initial value of the spectrum be reduced by the purchase value of the licence. However, as the licence declines in value over time, and assuming no change in the overall value of the spectrum, a transfer of value between the licence and the spectrum must be recorded to ensure that overall net worth is unaffected. To the extent that market conditions and expectations change following the issue of the licence both the value of the spectrum and the licence may change. All of these changes will be reflected in the other changes in volume of assetscount and are shown in the example below.


Under an accrual based system such as the ASNA, transactions in the licences are recorded when the licences are issued, even if the licences may take effect some time after their issue. For example, the licences auctioned in March 2001 will be issued in May 2001, with the licence taking effect from October 2002. Using the date of issue as the key date the required entries in the capital account and the other changes in volume of assets account will take place in the June quarter 2001. The financial transactions relating to the issue of the licences are recorded in the financial account in the period of issue as either cash flows or accounts payable and receivable, depending on the timing of the cash payments.


The auction of the licences in March 2001 generated almost $1.2 billion for the Commonwealth Government. This will be recorded in the June quarter 2001 capital accounts.1 Other licence sales that took place in earlier periods have not previously been included in the capital accounts but will be included from now on. In 2000 these amounts were $1.3 billion in June quarter 2000 (auctioned in March 2000) and $0.15 billion in December quarter 2000 (auctioned in September and November 2000).2

These sale values represent the amounts paid for the licences but do not reflect the overall value of the spectrum which underlies the licences. Using net present value techniques it is possible to determine the return per year over the life of the licences. The June quarter 2001 licences have a life of 15 years starting in October 2002. Using a 16 year expected life and assuming a real discount rate of 4% (approximately the real long term 10 year government bond rate), the market price of $1.2 billion equates to a net present value return per year of $103 million over the life of the licence at June quarter 2001 prices. By setting the expected life of the spectrum to be infinite, the overall value of the spectrum itself can be estimated at $2.7 billion. This technique can be applied to the earlier licence sales in a similar manner.

One issue is the extent to which possible future licence sales should be incorporated in the current valuation of the underlying spectrum. Given the difficulties in determining future valuations of licence sales, the recognition of the value of the spectrum will occur on an ongoing basis following receipt of information regarding licence sales. Thus, assuming no previous or future licence sales, the balance sheet as at 30 June 2001 would recognise $2.7 billion in assets. It will however be necessary to investigate, on an ongoing basis, the value of the spectrum and the assumptions used in its derivation. For example, market conditions may change such that revaluations are required.

Valuation of the licences and the spectrum are also complicated by the need to recognise both general increases in price levels and the amortisation of the licences. All other things being equal the value of the spectrum and the licences will change as a result of general price changes. The indicator that will be used to measure these changes will be the chain price index of domestic final demand. Offsetting this likely increase in value of the licences will be the amortisation which reflects the decline in value over time of the licences as they move towards their expiry date. Amortisation amounts can be estimated using net present value techniques. They are estimated in real terms and then inflated to provide current price estimates. Using the discount rates and asset life assumptions from above, the amortisation amount for the first year of the June quarter 2001 licences is $55 million at June quarter 2001 prices. Similar calculations will be made for the licences issued in earlier periods.

The compilation of these estimates will form part of the balance sheet compilation program. The spectrum assets will be reflected in the next publication of balance sheets. This will be in the 2000-2001 issue of Australian System of National Accounts (Cat. no. 5204.0), due for release in November 2001.

1 Quarterly sectoral capital accounts are not shown in this publication. They are provided in Australian National Accounts: Financial Accounts (Cat. no. 5232.0).

2 Transactions in spectrum licences have previously been shown as sales of non-financial assets in Government Financial Estimates (Cat. no. 5501.0), which is consistent with the national accounts treatment described in this article.


Using the valuations above for the June quarter 2001 licence sale the following entries, in billions of dollars, are applicable. (Rounding has been used to facilitate presentation.)



Flow Accounts during period of issue of licence-
June quarter 2001
Other changes in volume of assets account
Appearance of tangible, non-produced,
non-financial assets
Recognition of spectrum
. .
Disappearence of tangible, non-produced,
non-financial assets
Conversion of spectrum to licence
. .
Appearance of intangible, non-produced,
non-financial assets
Recognition of licence
. .
Capital account
Acquisition less disposal of non-produced,
non-financial assets
Transaction creating the licence
Financial account
Transaction creating the licence
Balance sheet as at 30 June 2001
Tangible non-produced assets
. .
Intangible non-produced assets
. .
Financial assets
Flow accounts 1 July 2001-30 June 2002
Other changes in volume of assets account
Amortisation of intangible non-produced assets
. .
Reappearence of tangible non-produced assets
. .
Balance sheet as at 30 June 2002
Tangible non-produced assets
. .
Intangible non-produced assets
. .

. . not applicable


Since sectoral capital accounts are only published annually in the national accounts, the complete set of flows and balance sheet entries described above will not be seen in the national accounts until the release of the annual publication Australian System of National Accounts, 2000-2001 (Cat. no. 5204.0) in November 2001. However, quarterly capital accounts are shown in the flow of funds tables published in Australian National Accounts, Financial Accounts (Cat. no. 5232.0). The flow of funds tables will not show the complete set of entries relating to the spectrum and the licences but will identify the capital and financial account flows and the implications on the financial balance sheet.


Further information on conceptual issues can be found on the OECD Statistics website (http://www.oecd.org/std/mobphon.htm) where an international discussion group on this topic is located. Queries on the Australian treatment should be directed to Carl Obst on 02 6252 6713 or email carl.obst@abs.gov.au.