Wireless spectrum is a public commodity that has increasingly become very valuable for national governments: as a source of public finance and for public policy. In the US the FCC is in the midst of auctioning 3G spectrum and the bids have reached over $13B. While this may seem like a lot of money, wireless operators in Europe paid almost $100B a few years back for 3G spectrum. In the current auction the highest price paid per megahertz per head of population (MHz-POP) was in Washington DC at $1.59. In contrast UK and German operators paid $4.22 and $3.86 MHz-POP respectively. T-Mobile USA was the biggest bidder paying over $4B. US spectrum is also less restrictive than European spectrum--operators can deploy any technology they want whereas European operators had to deploy W-CDMA technology which at the time was too immature.
In India the regulators do not sell spectrum but provide it on a revenue-share basis to operators. As a result operators do not need as much capital to provide services but do get hurt in their Opex. Since India is a hyper-competitive market with 12 operators resulting in the lowest voice tarrifs in the world, increased Opex is meaningful. Nonetheless the top operator in India Bharati Airtel is profitable at ARPU of $6. This compares to ARPUs of $45 in the US. Bharati's operations are very innovative and I predict that operators around the world will move in their direction. Bharati has outsourced most of its major activities: radio infrastructure to Nokia and Ericsson, business support services (BSS) to IBM. The radio infrastructure deal is particularly clever: it is revenue share based on $/erlang. In other words, Bharati has incented Nokia and Ericsson to efficiently utilize their spectrum, thus passing on the revenue share arrangement from the regulator.
I am less familiar with how China regulates its spectrum. Since its main operator China Mobile is majority government owned it is likely that they get "subsidized" spectrum. China has held out offering 3G spectrum to encourage a home grown standard SD-CDMA to evolve. The government hopes to use it's huge domestic market as leverage for its equipment and handset vendors to get a head start for global exports. This strategy backfired for broadband wireless with WiMax defeating a home grown standard.