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So George Osborne was overoptimistic about the money which Britain's auction of 4G spectrum – allowing the delivery of superfast mobile services – would fetch. He was hardly alone, though. Many independent analysts and consultants pitched their estimates for the proceeds at around £3-billion ($4-billion) to $4-billion, compared with the £2.3-billion achieved.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this. First, this is a sector behaving far more rationally now that Europe's economic malaise, regulatory pressures, and new sources of competition are squeezing margins and hampering revenue growth. Second, if you hold an auction where the number of plausible bidders is very limited and some of the results predetermined – regulators wanted to ensure that four players remained in the market – you are not going to get top dollar.

That said, the winners seem to be BT and Vodafone. The former has paid under £200-million for spectrum that should allow it to usefully enhance planned broadband services and build on WiFi assets; the latter has paid close to £800-million (compared with some expectations of around £1-billion) and emerges in a stronger position than some peers.

Profitable exploitation of 4G's potential is going to be a complicated task for European telcos generally. But perhaps the most important thing is that Britain's much-delayed auction has finally been held. At least they can now get on with the task.