EU to pick satellite-to-cellphone services


The European Commission has proposed a procedure for member states to select companies wishing to provide services to cellphones using satellites, in what it describes as a “beauty contest, not an auction”.

  • Member state authority

Technically speaking, the Commission has no competence in picking providers serving any given chunk of the radio spectrum. However, member states, who have this authority, would find it hard to co-ordinate all over Europe in order to avoid interference in this fairly narrow band using satellite transmission, which covers large areas. Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr explained: “Companies who want to offer MSS in the EU at the moment have to have a licence to do so in every EU member state.” 

In its draft, the Commission tries to demonstrate why the EU should have some competence as well. Due to the technical characteristics of satellite communication, it will likely be able to demonstrate that services are best picked at the European level.

However, in order to avoid attributing more power to the EU than needed, the Commission limited itself to merely drafting the mechanism for selecting service providers. The selection will then be made by the member states. “This is a beauty contest, not an auction. If demand exceeds spectrum availability, companies will be selected according to pre-defined criteria,” Selmayr said.

  • Competing uses

Given how narrow the two bands to be allocated are, it is hard to imagine a wider range of different services making use of them without a risk of interference. Companies and organisations wanting to use the band for mobile TV and others wanting to use it for integrated satellite-terrestrial communications have therefore entered into competition over the use of the spectrum. 

Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding said: "The potential for Europe-wide mobile satellite services is massive - Think mobile television, think broadband for all, think public protection and disaster relief. The new way the Commission proposes to select mobile satellite services will give Europe's industry the necessary confidence to invest in new EU-wide services for citizens. It will also help bridge the digital divide by improving coverage in the EU's remote areas." 

Robert Brumley, CEO of TerreStar Global, applauded the Commission decision, saying: "Commissioner Reding and her colleagues have adopted a very important decision that will enable Europe to assert global leadership with the next generation of mobile satellite services. Ms. Reding has demonstrated tremendous leadership to advance this proposal and I agree with her wholeheartedly that this proposal will 'help bridge the digital divide by improving coverage in the EU’s remote areas' as well as advance 'public protection and disaster relief'." 

Terrestar Global said that it "plans to build, own and operate the first next-generation mobile satellite integrated with terrestrial communications networks that will provide universal access and tailored applications throughout Europe over conventional wireless devices".

On 14 February 2007, Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding obliged member states to free, by 1 July 2007, two frequency bands in the two-Gigahertz spectrum (1980 to 2010 MHz and 2170 to 2200 MHz) for systems providing mobile satellite services (MSS). 

The two bands were previously unused in most, if not all, member states, following a 1992 decision by the International Telecommunication Union

The main industry actors spoke out in a consultation that was held in March-May 2007. In the course of consultation, it became obvious that two branches of the industry were competing for the use of the two spectrum bands: 

  • Content providers, such as TV stations and some network operators, who would like to use the spectrum for mobile TV, and;
  • new market entrants and other network operators, who propose to use it for closing gaps in mobile-network coverage and in particular providing reliable emergency services at all times. 

On 22 August 2007, the Commission followed up with a proposal on the selection and authorisation of systems providing mobile satellite services. 

The European Parliament and the Council must adopt the decision proposed by the Commission.

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