This article is part of our special report Mobile World Congress.
SPECIAL REPORT / European member states are divided over the apportionment of radio spectrum for critical public safety – seen as vital to maintain free flows of data in the hyper-connected world – especially in the wake of recent terrorist attacks.
The issue has seen the UK split from other key member states – EURACTIV has discovered – as representatives from the telecommunications sector descend this week (2-5 March) on Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress.
Spectrum is amongst key issues under debate in the Catalan capital this year, since the World Radio-communication Conference (WRC) – conducted by the International Telecommunications Unions (ITU), a Geneva-based UN agency – will review and revise global spectrum rules in November this year.
Such rules are needed to prevent interference between broadcast and telecommunications users in different countries.
The EU executive has asked stakeholders to give their views on the options proposed in a report on the issue presented by former Commissioner Pascal Lamy in September 2014.
700 MHz band
The Lamy Report sets out a strategy to resolve broadcasters and mobile operators rival claims for the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) spectrum, which is a finite resource. It is mostly used for broadcasting, mobile broadband and wireless microphones.
While the two industries have agreed that the 700 MHz band, currently used by TV broadcasters, should be given over to wireless broadband, they cannot agree how and when.
The location of the 700 MHz band gives it excellent propagation characteristics, according to America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This allows the 700 MHz signals to penetrate buildings and walls easily, and to cover larger geographic areas with relatively less infrastructure.
Provisions are also being considered by several EU member states to set aside part of the 700 MHz for a range of public security and utility services: a priority that has hardened in the wake of the attacks on Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden all favour keeping some promotion of spectrum for such exclusive purposes, but the UK is taking a different tack, sources in Barcelona told EURACTIV.
Since the UK has never maintained broadband for exclusive public purposes it instead intends to auction its 700 MHz bandwidth, with a view to allowing public critical infrastructures to share the bandwidth with the private sector.
The UK’s move is likely to affect a European Commission consultation on how to allocate the prised band, set to run until 12 April 2015.
It may not affect the Commission’s desire to define a common position in the area of spectrum management, but is likely to be keenly watched around the world since the UK alone has signalled it wants to allow critical infrastructures to share bandwidth with others.
Bharat Bhatia, an ITU executive dealing with spectrum, told a seminar on the issue in Barcelona yesterday (1 March) that the need for public safeguards within spectrum was climbing up the agenda as evidence of fundamentalists’ use of social media as a recruitment tool escalates.
Spectrum for the hyper-connected world
“All the usual public services such as police fire and ambulance are feeling under even more pressure now, especially with the increased threat from ISIS: public safety users need to talk to each other without constraints,” Thomas Lynch, the associate director of the critical communications group with consultancy IHS, told the seminar, hosted by Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.
Many in the telecoms sector in the UK are sceptical that the move will work. Nick James, the CEO of UK Broadband, an action group, said that the amount of video required by critical public safety networks was extensive.
“Lots of other applications, such as airports monitoring air traffic, the use of drones, or new smart city applications. To provide critical services you need a lot of spectrum […] I am worried that we will not get it,” said James.
Allotting spectrum is becoming more important as hyper-connectivity gathers pace. Innovations in wearable connected products – which collect data on the wellbeing of the wearer; new earpieces and watches to rival the functionality of telephone handsets are all set to be unveiled in Barcelona this week.