MEPs and ministers hit back on EU plan for longer spectrum licenses

A Commission plan to lengthen licenses for mobile spectrum to at least 25 years faces changes from the European Parliament and national governments. [Flickr/mroach]

MEPs and national ministers are stripping down an EU proposal to change how wireless radio spectrum is sold to telecoms companies.

A draft EU rule that would lengthen licenses for wireless spectrum to a minimum of 25 years is causing backlash from negotiators.

MEPs’ compromise amendments to the EU proposal suggest adding a review clause 10 years into spectrum licenses, according to a list of the amendments obtained by EURACTIV.

Telecoms industry sources are worried that any change to the 25-year minimum would water down the European Commission’s proposal from last year to change how national regulators sell off spectrum.

In some EU countries, auction prices can reach several million euros. The length of spectrum licenses auctioned off to telecoms operators varies across the bloc: one Commission official said recently that the average length in the EU is between 15 and 20 years. That means the Commission’s proposal to require licenses for a minimum of 25 years would lengthen the average time companies can use spectrum.

Telecoms operators hoped that a new EU-wide minimum length for spectrum licenses could cut the fees they pay at auctions and limit bureaucracy.

The Commission has tried for years to create more EU-wide rules for spectrum auctions. So far, national governments have pushed back against the Commission’s latest attempt to reform spectrum rules.

Thirteen member states double down on opposition to EU spectrum rules

A group of thirteen EU member states have doubled down on a pushback by national governments against the European Commission’s proposed changes to radio spectrum policy, arguing it will sweep away their powers to auction off spectrum to telecoms operators.

But MEPs have been more supportive of the changes. Pilar del Castillo, the Spanish MEP who is leading the Parliament’s negotiations over the telecoms bill, even increased the minimum length for spectrum licenses to 30 years in her draft version of the legislation.

But new compromise amendments from other MEPs in the Parliament’s Industry Committee (ITRE) show that del Castillo’s position on spectrum licenses did not catch on with other political groups. One compromise amendment changed the minimum length back to 25 years. It also added a 10-year review clause and new criteria outlining when national governments can revoke the rights to use spectrum after they sell it to a company.

Under the MEPs’ compromise amendments, national authorities could withdraw spectrum rights from operators after 10 years for “the efficient and effective use of radio spectrum in particular in light of technological and market evolutions”, or for “pursuing a general interest objective, such as the achievement of the Union connectivity targets”.

Last year, the Commission set an EU-wide internet download speed target of 100 megabits per second by 2025 and wants to reach gigabit connections in transport hubs, schools and other areas where public authorities provide services.

MEPs’ third criterion for revoking spectrum rights is “for public order, public security purposes or defence”.

A separate amendment says that national authorities should compensate companies if they revoke firms’ rights to use spectrum after they invest in building new telecoms networks.

MEPs in the ITRE Committee will vote on the bill this autumn. The full Parliament will need to approve the legislation before MEPs can head into three-way negotiations with national governments and the Commission.

But national governments are divided over whether they want to introduce any minimum length at all for spectrum licenses. The Estonian government, which is chairing member states’ discussions until the end of the year, suggested last week that it would “seek guidance” from other countries about what length they might accept as a minimum. Germany has led a group of member states who oppose the Commission’s proposal.

National ministers discussed spectrum at a meeting Tuesday (18 July) in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. Estonia has asked other national governments to share more feedback on setting a minimum length for spectrum licenses by the end of this week (21 July).

At the start of their meeting on Tuesday, ministers signed off on an agreement setting out their goals to introduce faster next generation 5G mobile networks. One part of their two-page declaration mentions making spectrum available to operators in a “predictable legal framework for the granting and renewal of spectrum usage rights”.

Polish centre-right MEP Michal Boni traveled to the Tallinn meeting to urge ministers to back a proposal for longer licenses. Boni told EURACTIV that ministers emphasised that “if they want to have longer licenses, it should be clear what kind of criteria should be used” to outline when national agencies can withdraw a company’s right to use spectrum.

Boni called the ministers’ 5G declaration “very important” even though it is short and does not clarify where member states stand on tricky points in the spectrum overhaul plans.

“This is general but on the other hand there are some obligations for cooperation and the document mentions some of these issues. I hope it is a good start,” he said.

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