Commission shakes up radio spectrum to lead on mobile internet

The Commission stressed the importance of new compression and transmission technologies for a smooth transition towards the new spectrum landscape. [brewbooks/Flickr]

National governments must announce their plans to move TV broadcasters below the 700 MHz band by 2017, which will be assigned exclusively to wireless broadband by 2020.

“Spectrum is a scarce resource: we need to make the best of it,” said the Eurppean Commission’s Vice-President for the Digital Agenda, Andrus Ansip on Tuesday (2 February). The strategic importance of the radio spectrum has increased in recent years due to the intense usage of mobile broadband, online videos and the upcoming era of connected objects (the Internet of Things).

In order to accommodate the growing needs of internet “on the move” in the existing spectrum landscape, largely dominated by TV broadcasters, the Commission proposed on 2 February to allocate the 700 MHz band (694-790 MHz) for wireless broadband. The audiovisual sector will be moved ro the sub-700 MHz band (470-694 MHz).

This division follows the agreed upon position reached by internet operators and broadcasters and summarized by Pascal Lamy in his report in 2014. Although the audiovisual sector accepted to release all spectrum above 700 MHz, the TV channels were concerned about the flexibility granted to member states to allocate spectrum in the sub-700 MHz band for other purposes.

The executive has limited this flexibility for downlink-only transmission from the network to TV sets or tablets, not to upload content to the Internet, which generates greater interferences to broadcasters. A Commission official explained that the sub-700 MHz band could be used for other purposes only if the member states guarantee that it would not generate any harmful interferences in the audiovisual sector.

>>Read: Commission to unveil key spectrum harmonisation proposal in February

This major reconfiguration of the radio spectrum will require a hug effort from member states and broadcasters, in order to set the stage in time for the arrival of the 5G. This will play a crucial role in improving Europe’s competitiveness in the context of the digitalisation of industry, and the Internet of Things.

The 28 member states will need to announce their national plans for releasing this 700 MHz band, and for network coverage, by June 2017.  Neighbouring states will need to conclude cross-border coordination agreements by the end of that year to ensure a proper coverage and no interference in bordering regions.

According to the Commission, this schedule allows national governments to have enough time to prepare for the transition to the new system by June 2020 under harmonised conditions.

To this end, more digital terrestrial television (DTT) channels will have to be broadcast under the sub-700 MHz band. In order to find room for all the channels, new compression and transmission technologies will be “particularly important”, the executive emphasised in the proposal.

The implementation of new technologies will require fresh investment from the TV channels, the European Broadcasting Union pointed out. In order to bring this compression and transmission technology to market, the EBU called for guarantees that the sub-700 MHz band will continue in the audiovisual sector’s hands until 2030, as it was initially suggested by the Lamy report.

Meanwhile, individual users will also have to buy new TV sets or adapt their old models, with costs that could amount to €150 in some cases.

Member states already agreed on this division of spectrum for the upcoming years during the World Radiocommunication Conference in November last year.

However, this will be the first time that the European Commission intervenes in spectrum management, a highly sensitive issue not only because of its importance for technological development, but also for the significant revenues it brings through licenses to the national authorities.

>>Read: Lamy: Commission should take member states to court in spectrum dispute

A Commission official underlined that this proposal does not intend to take any money from national coffers.

The executive expects broad support among the member states. France and Germany have already decided to allocate the 700 MHz band for mobile services, while Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom have announced plans to follow their steps.

“We propose a joint approach,” said Ansip, because “28 different approaches to manage radio frequencies in the EU do not make economic sense in the Digital Single Market”.

The executive urged legislators to adopt the proposal this year, since a “swift adoption is “essential for the success” of the DSM. 

John Higgins, Director General of DigitalEurope, stated: “The approach adopted by the Commission offers benefits for consumers and mobile broadband businesses, while ensuring the protection of audio-visual media services." The organization said that, given the consensus at European level on the need to introduce flexibility in the 470-694 MHz band, the mobile downlink option should be studied and tested in a timely manner in order to gather sufficient feedback for the review of the long-term use of the UHF band at the next review in 2025.

The head of European affairs at European Broadcasting Union, Nicola Frank, pointed out that “moving DTT services out of the 700MHz band by 2020 is a major challenge, in particular for those Member States where Digital Terrestial Television (DTT) is the main platform to receive television.” He added that “Member states should clearly be able to provide for compensation for both consumers and broadcasters in order to cater for the investment needed to implement the change.” Furthermore, he warned that by introducing a so-called ‘flexibility option’ to deploy alternative technologies in the sub-700 MHz band, the European Commission is opting for something which has not yet been validated by technical studies and for which there is no proven market demand.”

Stephen Pentland, Head of Spectrum Policy at Vodafone Group, said: “The European Commission is right to seek to address the fragmentation of spectrum policy across Member States. A coordinated and cohesive approach to the release of 700 MHz band will support the creation of an effective Digital Single Market and is essential if Europe is to become a world leader in 5G. The institutions also need to pursue policies designed to stimulate investment in competitive fibre-optic networks – there will be no 5G future for Europe without fibre, everywhere.”

The European Commission stresses that if no EU policy action is taken, a number of risks are likely to emerge:

  • The risk of an uncoordinated release of the 700MHz frequency band, resulting in cross-border frequency coordination issues and slow take-up of services and equipment.
  • The risk of fragmentation in the single market. In this regard, several Member States (Germany, France, Sweden, Finland) decided after 2012 to repurpose the 700 MHz frequency band for wireless broadband. These member states are already moving ahead with their plans, thus posing a risk of fragmentation in the single market as well as the risk of cross-border radio interference, which needs to be addressed through early coordination between neighbouring member states.
  • The risk of a reduced European role on the international scene, given that the mobile industry is a global one. The ongoing process of international repurposing of the 700 MHz frequency band, and possibly further portions of UHF broadcasting spectrum, opens the opportunity for Europe to develop a future-oriented strategy for the entire UHF broadcasting spectrum, which is conducive to the European audiovisual landscape, thereby influencing developments in other regions of the world.
  • Finally, no EU action would lead to a lack of regulatory certainty for stakeholders and citizens, resulting in nonpredictability, antagonism and lack of investment towards long-term efficient use of UHF spectrum. This in turn is detrimental to the provision and consumption of more and better digital services that deliver economic growth and societal welfare.

As regards to 5G, all EU-harmonised bands for wireless broadband are potentially suitable for supporting future 5G services. The total available spectrum in these bands (including the 700 MHz band) amounts to nearly 1100 MHz, placing the EU in a good position to lead in 5G. 

The new mobile broadband generation will be ideal for connected cars and other new digital services which rely on very good coverage. This will also help the development of other innovative services like on-board entertainment, remote health care (i.e. medical and public health practice supported by mobile devices, such as mobile phones, patient monitoring devices and other wireless devices) or smart energy grids in the Internet of Things.

  • June 2017: Member states must announce their national plans for releasing the 700 MHz band and for network coverage.
  • End of 2017: Neighbouring states will need to conclude cross-border coordination agreements on spectrum.
  • June 2020: 700 MHz band will be available for mobile internet.

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