EU strikes tentative deal on 700 MHz band for mobile internet

Mobile roaming fees within the EU end today. Some MEPs want there to be new rules to make calls between member states cheaper. [Gonzalo Baeza/Flickr]

The Slovak Presidency, which made bringing “deliverables” to EU citizens one of its priorities, reached an informal agreement with the European Parliament on the coordinated use of a key frequency band that will allow the introduction of 5G as of 2020.

Yesterday night (14 December) negotiators from the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission reached political agreement on an EU-wide approach for the use of the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band (470-790 MHz) including the 700 MHz band (694-790 MHz).

The agreement foresees the coordinated rollout of the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband by 2020, which will facilitate the take-up of 5G, the next-generation mobile technology that is expected to support driverless cars, remote healthcare and billions of everyday objects connected to the Internet.

“The coordinated release of the 700 MHz band is major leap forward on the (European) Union’s path to 5G,” Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for the digital economy, said in a statement.

The 700 MHz band provides high speeds and excellent coverage. The ultra-high frequency (UHF) band comprises the range 470-790 MHz and is currently used for digital terrestrial television and for wireless microphones for programme-making and special events.

The agreement will provide more valuable spectrum for wireless broadband in the 700 MHz band by 30 June 2020. This band is ideal for providing high-quality internet to users whether they are indoors in a large city, in a small distant village or on a highway.

Árpád Érsek, the Slovak Minister for Transport, Construction and Regional Development, said: “Spectrum is a precious resource that must be used wisely and strategically. Releasing of 700 MHz frequency band for wireless broadband is a win-win solution for digital industry, audio-visual sector, as well as for all consumers. It brings long-term regulatory certainty and is essential for uptake of 5G. This means better connectivity everywhere.”

Andrus Ansip, the Commission’s Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, welcomed the agreement, stressing that it paves the way for 5G, the next generation of communication networks, and the Internet of Things.

Final endorsement pending

Wednesday night’s agreement will need to be formally endorsed by member states and lawmakers before becoming law.

The 700 MHz band (694-790 MHz), currently widely used for digital television signals and wireless microphones, can penetrate buildings and walls easily and cover larger geographic areas with less infrastructure than frequencies in higher bands.

Member states can delay the assignment of the spectrum by up to two years if they have legitimate reasons, such as unresolved coordination issues with neighbouring non-EU countries or if they need more time to reallocate the spectrum from broadcasting services.

Member states support spectrum shake-up for mobile internet

The Council endorsed on Thursday (26 June) the European Commission’s proposal to liberate the 700 MHz frequency by 30 June 2020, in time for the irruption of the next generation of wireless broadband (5G).

“The timely release of spectrum bands is essential to completing 4G and launching 5G. Any delay would slow down mobile broadband deployment,” said Francesco Versace, director of regulation at ETNO, the association of European telecom operators.

Broadcasting services would keep priority in the sub-700MHz band (470-694 MHz) until at least 2030.

Only France and Germany have allowed the use of this spectrum for mobile services, while Britain, Denmark, Finland and Sweden plan to do the same in the coming years.

Commission shakes up radio spectrum to lead on mobile internet

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.

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.

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