Thirteen member states double down on opposition to EU spectrum rules

European Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip has spoken out against member states for opposing the Commission's proposal to overhaul EU radio spectrum rules. [European Commission]

A group of thirteen EU member states have doubled down on a pushback by national governments against the European Commission’s proposed changes to radio spectrum policy, arguing it will sweep away their powers to auction off spectrum to telecoms operators.

The countries are preparing to reject parts of the Commission’s proposal to overhaul EU telecoms law, adding to a storm of conflict that surfaced in the last few weeks as Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip criticised member states and telecoms associations lined up to defend the proposal against attempts to water it down.

Member states are especially eager to slash parts of the proposal that would introduce spectrum licenses with a minimum length of 25 years and a new peer review procedure to let other member states and national regulators comment on, but not veto, conditions for lucrative national spectrum auctions.

A 536-page document dated from 24 April, obtained by EURACTIV.com, contains comments from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Croatia, Latvia, Austria, Sweden, Poland, Italy, the UK, Lithuania, France and Slovakia that lash out at several points in the Commission’s proposal from last September.

It follows another document from early April that sharply criticised the Commission’s attempt to change EU spectrum rules. That paper was initiated by Germany and signed by 14 other member states.

In the newer document, a comment from the Austrian delegation says that “there should be no minimum duration” to spectrum licences, but that other criteria like “a common timetable for the award of harmonized key bands” could encourage mobile telecoms operators to bid in auctions. Latvia and Poland are among the other countries that also oppose the minimum license duration.

That has telecoms firms up in arms. They have argued that the Commission should do more to rein in national spectrum rules as a way to force some countries to improve conditions to bid in auctions. Short licenses mean operators have to go through the bidding process sooner.

“If you have no minimum requirements for licenses whatsoever, where’s the predictability or the willingness to invest or bid in auctions? You have no legal security,” one industry source said.

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Countries including Croatia and Slovakia rejected the Commission’s proposal to set up a peer review for spectrum auctions.

Slovakia wrote that that procedure would be “too complex and would lead to unnecessary administrative burden”.

If member states axe the peer review measure, they would deal another blow to the Commission proposal and to telecoms operators’ demands for more transparency, which they hope might prevent countries from introducing especially restrictive rules for auctions.

National governments have been reluctant to hand over too much power to the Commission to decide how they should manage spectrum. Auctions can rake in multi-million euro profits for member states.

The Commission’s proposal does not affect the cost of spectrum that member states can ask for in auctions. But the EU executive does want to make member states coordinate some criteria for spectrum sales, including auction timing.

The Commission has tried to overhaul spectrum rules before, but member states rejected those measures, which were originally part of the so-called telecoms single market proposal that was approved in 2015.

Alessandro Gropelli, spokesman for the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association, said “there is no escape from spectrum reform”.

“There is a political pressure on the industry to deliver on 5G and there is pressure from a series of industrial sectors that expect us to deliver on 5G. We want to do that but unless there is serious spectrum harmonisation the industry will not be able to,” Gropelli said, referring to next generation 5G mobile networks that industry groups say will be needed to operate driverless cars and other technologies with internet connectivity.

Everyone involved in the spectrum debate seems eager to point to 5G—but they disagree sharply over whether spectrum rules must be changed so that telecoms operators can make those networks available.

The earlier document signed by 15 member states to oppose the Commission’s spectrum plans uses the argument of 5G networks to push for exactly the opposite of what industry groups want—less EU coordination on spectrum policy.

The group of member states wrote that they are “concerned that setting a regulatory framework for spectrum management as detailed as the Commission’s proposal could put an early 5G deployment in the EU at risk and has the potential to create an obstacle to Europe becoming the most flourishing and successful 5G market”.

Ansip responded to that letter on 25 April, writing in a blog post that the “depth of the negative reaction” from member states is “unjustified”.

He also argued that telecoms operators need new EU-level spectrum rules to make 5G networks available.

“With 5G, and dependent emerging sectors like the Internet of Things, we simply cannot afford to ‘wait and see’ when it comes to reforming spectrum management,” Ansip wrote in the blog post.

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