EU telecoms ministers on Thursday (26 May) endorsed the European Commission’s proposal to liberate the 700 MHz frequency for broadband internet – but postponed to 2022 a final deadline to reorganise the bands.
As consumers’ usage of mobile internet keeps growing exponentially, the importance of maximising the limited radio spectrum has increased in recent years.
In order to prepare the ground for millions of connected devices, from mobiles to refrigerators, the Commission proposed last February to allocate the 700 MHz band (694-790 MHz) for wireless broadband. TV broadcasters operating in this frequency would be moved to the sub-700 MHz band (470-694 MHz).
Consumers will have to buy new TV sets or adapt their old models, with costs that could amount to €150.
Member states agreed with the executive’s proposal, as the 700 MHz will provide “both the additional capacity and the universal coverage, in particular for the economically challenging rural and remote areas” needed to achieve that all citizens have access to broadband speeds of not less than 30 Mbs/s by 2020, the Council position said.
Commission spokesperson Nathalie Vandystadt said that the institution was “happy” the Council progressed “so quickly” on this dossier.
Belgium was the only country that abstained from the Council’s adopted position. The text will be now discussed with the European Parliament.
Delay in the transition calendar
National governments did, however, water down the Commission’s calendar to reorganise radio spectrum. The EU executive proposed that all member states should announce their national plans for releasing the 700 MHz band, and for network coverage, by June 2017.
Neighbouring states will need to conclude cross-border coordination agreements by the end of that year to ensure proper coverage and no interference in bordering regions.
The executive said this time frame would leave national governments enough time to prepare the transition, as it is expected that the new 5G technologies will start operating by 2020.
But according to the Council’s position, member states may decide “for duly justified reasons, to delay the availability of the band by up to two years”. If that happens, the capitals must inform other countries and the Commission about their plans.
The Council also postponed one year, to June 2018, the obligation to adopt the national roadmaps to complete the transition.
Officials admitted that this delay would represent an issue for the Commission during the negotiation process.
“We are hoping to see a different scenario than we had with the implementation of 800MHz, where certain countries requested longer periods of time to release the band” said John Giusti, Chief Regulatory Officer at GSMA, a trade association representing the interests of mobile operators.
He admitted however that “it is only natural that timing may vary slightly.”
But Giusti remained adamant about maintaining 2020 as “an ultimate milestone” in the shift to mobile for the 700MHz band. “Without this commitment, Europe is at risk of falling behind other regions in mobile broadband development,” he warned.
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.
Commission's proposed calendar:
- June 2017: Member states must announce their national plans for releasing the 700 MHz band and for network coverage.
- End of 2017: Neighbouring states will need to conclude cross-border coordination agreements on spectrum.
- June 2020: 700 MHz band will be available for mobile internet.
- 31 December 2017: conclusion cross-border frequency coordination agreements within the EU
- 30 June 2018: publication of national roadmaps to liberate 700 MHz band.
- 30 June 2022: final deadline to allow the use of 700 MHz band.
- European Commission: proposal on spectrum and impact assessment of the reform.
- Council: position on the use of the 470-790MHz frequency band.