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France to auction 4G wireless frequencies by summer

BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) - France’s auction of fourth-generation wireless frequencies is on track to be completed by summer although key details on price and terms have not been decided, Industry Minister Eric Besson said on Friday.

Asked whether the state had set a minimum price for the auction, Besson said the issue was still being debated, but that the government aimed for the sale to raise 2 billion euros.

“We are relatively confident,” Besson told Reuters in an interview. “These frequencies are of very, very high quality.”

France's mobile operators France Telecom FTE.PA, SFR VIV.PA, Bouygues BOUY.PA and new entrant Iliad ILD.PA are likely to be interested in the frequencies, although they are waiting to see the details of the government's tender offer, especially on the minimum price.

Some have also voiced concerns about proposals from the telecoms regulator ARCEP requiring extensive coverage of rural areas where operators argue the technology is not really needed.

They are also lobbying for the government to charge less for the frequencies, conscious that they were burned by high investments in third-generation mobile technology.

Operators are facing a boom in data on their networks, especially in urban areas, brought on as more people surf the Internet on the go via smartphones, laptops, and tablet computers. Fourth-generation mobile frequencies would be used to alleviate that strain.

A spokesman for France Telecom declined to comment on the auction until more details were known. The company has already begun testing 4G technology at its R&D center in Paris.

Besson added that he expected the telecom regulator ARCEP to formally give the government their proposals soon, and based on that the state would issue a call for bids by the end of January or early February.

“The frequencies will be sold in four lots: two of 10 megahertz and two of five megahertz,” Besson said.

Reporting by Julien Toyer and Leila Abboud; Editing by David Cowell

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