This article is part of our special report Broadband: driving recovery?.
As more telecoms companies seek precious radio spectrum, the EU has decided to put wireless broadband at the front of the queue in order to reach 100% Internet penetration by 2013.
The EU's spectrum policy, to be unveiled today, tells member states to wind down analogue services to make way for more digital services, thus freeing up bandwidth for higher broadband penetration in rural areas, for example.
The policy will also accommodate demand for mobile and wireless services, like satellite positioning systems on smart phones.
Switching from analogue to digital – the digital switchover – will free up the 800MHz spectrum band, which is a highly desirable commodity as it travels long distances and through buildings.
The EU has laid down two deadlines in its Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP): that member states should have completed the transfer from analogue to digital broadcasting by January 2012 and that the freed spectrum should be available for wireless services by 2013.
"Steps are to be taken to attain specific targets for wireless broadband and to ensure availability of spectrum designated for this purpose," read the RSPP, which will be published by the European Commission this afternoon (20 September).
Broadband for all
The Commission has recognised that in rural and remote areas in particular, wireless and mobile networks will play a fundamental role in bridging the gap between the digital 'haves' and 'have nots'.
"Making optimum use of spectrum would stimulate innovation and help the EU deliver universal broadband access by 2013," read a Commission statement in March.
Services relying on the use of radio spectrum contribute approximately €300bn to European GDP, according to figures from the Commission.
The EU executive's preference for wireless services has riled some interest groups, who argue that a push for wireless will tip the market in mobile operators' favour.
Though critics of the RSPP say the policy has good intentions, like reaching consumers in remote areas, its net effect on the balance of power in the telecoms market remains to be seen.
Cable companies argue, for example, that member states individual markets should guide which kind of operator gets their hands on the freed spectrum.
"It is not enough to promote just wireless or fibre – a wide mix of technologies that deliver high speeds should be promoted. In the end it is consumer-demand which will drive the provider to come up with compelling speed offers," said Caroline Van Weede, managing director of Cable Europe, an industry grouping.
"In the market, when one operator offers a newer, faster offering it is implicit that the competitor must respond. Operators compete on speed. That is happening now, especially where cable is present," Van Weede added.
A study by the Analysys Mason Consultancy concludes that the EU's telecoms market is not competitive enough.
"There are fears that the competitive situation will significantly worsen if measures are not taken to prevent discriminatory conduct in the delivery of next-generation services, where current evidence in a number of countries is not encouraging," reads the study.
According to its findings, incumbent telecoms firms continue to get the lion's share of the market and even the largest competitors have survived on thin margins or have been loss-making for years.
An additional spanner in the works is that of interference – a buzzing noise – on devices. Various interest groups have haggled over what constitutes harmful interference and how much of this will hit television and radio once mobile gets hold of more of their spectrum.
The EU's policy follows a June decision by the Obama administration in the US to free up its 500 MHz band as part of its wireless broadband initiative.