EU to open radio frequencies to wireless broadband

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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.

Positions

"We feel supported by an EU policy that recognises the full mix of technologies to achieve the Digital Agenda. Cable, fibre and 4G wireless are the next generation technologies in that mix and we are already delivering it today," said Caroline Van Weede, managing director of Cable Europe.

"We deploy between 100 and 200Mb speeds throughout Europe. Reaching potentially over 100 million European households, cable can help achieve 50% of the Digital Agenda. Those rural areas that are not connected could be the focal point of public funding, but only if it does not distort healthy infrastructure competition," Van Weede continued.

'It is important that spectrum enabling high speed mobile broadband is divided between operators in a fair and pro-competitive manner to ensure choice and affordability in mobile broadband services for consumers," said a spokesperson from the European Competitive Telecommunication Association.  

The GSMA, the body representing the worldwide mobile communications industry, congratulated the Commission on its Radio Spectrum Policy Programme proposal and called on the European Parliament and Council of Ministers to work towards a speedy adoption of the programme.

GSMA members support the January 2013 date set by the Commission for opening up the 800 MHz band to electronic communications services. ''Mobile is a key enabler in delivering the Digital Agenda and uniquely placed to help realise the EU 2020 goals. We call on EU member states to address, as a priority, any challenges in committing to a harmonised release of the 790-862 MHz digital dividend band for wireless broadband services,'' said Martin Whitehead, director of GSMA Europe.

''This will create economies of scale lowering both the cost of deploying mobile networks and the cost of mobile devices for consumers, allowing the delivery of mobile broadband services to rural areas as cheaply as possible and helping deliver broadband for all,'' he continued.

''It's critical that we have a strategy in Europe for reaping the maximum returns from such a scarce resource as spectrum. The Radio Spectrum Policy Programme can make a positive contribution and the Parliament and Council should move as quickly as possible to adopt the final programme,'' he added.

"Making more and harmonised spectrum available quickly throughout the Union is crucial for mobile broadband," DIGITALEUROPE, a lobby group, said in a statement.

"Opening up additional spectrum for mobile broadband services is essential to bridge the digital divide and to meet rapidly increasing consumer demand. The forthcoming Radio Spectrum Policy Programme is a unique opportunity to achieve that," said Michael Bartholomew, director of the European Telecommunications and Network Operators Association.

Aarti Holla-Main, secretary-general of the European Satellite Operators' Association (ESOA), said in an official statement: ''The Commission's 2013 objective of 'Broadband for All' can only be met if satellite plays an integral role: satellite operators are already connecting thousands of users per month to broadband Internet."

"Satellite operators are also capable of providing 30mbps services, if market demand supports it. It is unfortunate that the Broadband Communication did not recognise that only through satellite coverage can these services be extended to all citizens in Europe, a strength which is, by contrast well-recognised in the RSPP Communication,'' Holla-Main said. 

Ingrid Deltenre, director-general of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), welcomed the new  spectrum policy, saying it would open the door to further technology developments.  

"Broadcasters need to secure universal terrestrial free-to-air broadcasting as part of their remit. We should be able to offer our viewers the same quality of services and features as on other platforms. Future developments such as Hybrid Broadcast Broadband should not be slowed down because of the lack of availability of spectrum," she said in a statement.

"Any further reduction beyond the 800MHz band would have negative consequences on the diversity and quality of broadcasting services, increasing interference levels, and restricting the universal availability of free to air services," she added, calling on the Commission to take a holistic approach to addressing spectrum needs with regard to relevant frequency bands, technology developments and market conditions.

Background

As new digital technology replaces traditional analogue to meet the 2012 European deadline for the so-called 'digital switchover', the same services can be provided with less spectrum, opening up new opportunities for other operators.

The 'digital dividend' - spectrum that is freed as a result of the switchover - has been hailed in Brussels as a way to boost growth in a highly profitable digital market and bring broadband to remote areas that may not have terrestrial networks.

Brussels proposed to allocate the 790-862 MHz sub-band to telecoms operators to allow them to exploit the digital dividend. The 800 MHz band ranks among the most valuable freed frequencies, since it travels long distances and through buildings.

In November 2009, the European Parliament and the Council agreed to modify EU telecoms rules and called on the European Commission to propose a multi-annual Radio Spectrum Policy Programme.

The objective of the programme is to "set out the policy orientations and objectives for the strategic planning and harmonisation of the use of radio spectrum".

Timeline

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