Commission to unveil key spectrum harmonisation proposal in February

The European Commission argues the proposal is not about claiming new EU competences, but about ensuring that the objectives of the Digital Single Market can be achieved. [Broo_am/Flickr]

In February, the European Commission will present a controversial proposal to harmonise the use of radio spectrum in the EU, including the prized 700 MHz band, amid growing disparities among member states, EURACTIV has learned.

Radio spectrum “has become a strategic scarce resource” in a smartphone-driven world, the Commission acknowledged in a preparatory document last September.

The demand for wireless broadband grows exponentially due to the consumption of video and internet on our mobiles and tablets. And it will continue skyrocketing once our fridges and cars are fully connected (‘Internet of Things’) and the digitalisation of industrial processes (Industry 4.0) is further strengthened thanks to the development of 5G.

The 700 MHz band, currently used by terrestrial broadcasting networks and wireless microphones, offers great opportunities to expand the wireless digital world and to reach rural and other remote areas.

But as a scarce resource in member states’ hands, national governments are wary to give up the managing of the radio spectrum to Brussels.

Meanwhile, governments have started to allocate the band in different manners due to the lack of common action.

Proposal due next month

In light of the need of a harmonised response, and after consulting with member states and stakeholders, the Commission will come up with a legislative proposal next month on the future use of the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) band (470-790 MHz).

This common approach, demanded by internet providers and audiovisual companies to operate with legal certainty across Europe, will build on a report drafted by Pascal Lamy in 2014 on how to use the UHF spectrum most effectively in the coming decades.

>> Read: Mobile operators to get exclusive use of 700 MHz UHF spectrum band by 2020

Lamy proposed that the 700 MHz band should be dedicated to wireless broadband across Europe by 2020 (or by 2022 at the latest). Meanwhile, regulatory security and stability will be guaranteed for terrestrial broadcasters in the remaining UHF spectrum below 700 MHz until 2030. This division will be reviewed by 2025 to assess technology and market developments.

The Commission’s initial impact assessment of the upcoming proposal notes that UHF spectrum has unique benefits that cannot be provided by higher frequency bands, as its propagation qualities make it an essential means of providing rural and in-building coverage at low network cost.

Member states’ resistance

The European Commission’s proposal is expected to encounter resistance from member states, as they prefer to coordinate their spectrum policies from the national capitals due to the high economic value of the licenses. This was the case during the last World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15) that took place in November last year.

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

The final results of the WRC-15 were partly in line with the Lamy report. Thus, Europe, Africa and other large parts of the world will hold the division proposed by the European governments: above 700 MHZ band for mobile broadband, below that frequency for broadcasting services.

A Commission expert said that the upcoming legislative proposal is not about claiming new EU competences, but about ensuring that the objectives of the Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy can be achieved. In particular, the UHF spectrum allows universal and ubiquitous high-speed broadband access.

For that reason, the DSM Strategy foresaw specific proposals regarding “the coordinated release of the 700 MHz band, which is particularly well-suited for ensuring the provision of broadband services in rural areas, while accommodating the specific needs of audiovisual media distribution”.

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.

Member states may be reluctant to embrace the plan, as it would entail high administrative costs, as the Commission acknowledges. However, the executive expects that, in most cases, the revenues from new licenses of the 700 MHz band for mobile broadband will compensate for the costs of withdrawing or amending broadcasting licenses.

  • February: European Commission to announce a legislative proposal on the future use of the UHF band (470-790 MHz). 

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