May 23, 2020 / 2:43 PM / 10 days ago

UPDATE 1- Bouygues says France should postpone 5G auction to year-end because of COVID-19

(Adds CEO quotes, background)

PARIS, May 23 (Reuters) - France should postpone its planned auction of 5G frequencies to late 2020 or early 2021 because of uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus crisis, the head of one of France’s top conglomerates said on Saturday.

In February, French telecoms regulator Arcep had said it was hoping to award the 5G licences by June, but after France went into virus lockdown mid-March, Arcep postponed the sale and said a new date would depend on the progression of the health crisis.

“We need to push back the auction date simply because the economic world today is not the same as it was early March, when the terms of the auction were set,” Martin Bouygues, CEO of Bouygues Telecom’s parent company, said in the French daily Le Figaro.

Bouygues Telecom, Free Mobile, Orange and SFR had already submitted tender package for some frequencies in February.

“It is true that telecoms operators have escaped the crisis relatively unscathed, but is it reasonable to think they can buy frequencies for which the price was set early this year, when the economy was booming, while now it looks like 2020 growth may fall 8% and the recession will no doubt last?” he said.

He said the pandemic had shown that it is essential for everyone to have an internet connection and that citizens may find it more important to have 4G in every region of France than to have 5G in the big cities.

He added that while 5G holds a lot of promise, the technology is far from mature and that for a wider audience the truly innovative applications will not arrive before 2023-24.

He added that Bouygues would take part in the 5G auction whenever it is held.

Reporting by Geert De Clercq; editing by David Evans and Ros Russell

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