Mobile operators to get exclusive use of 700 MHz UHF spectrum band by 2020

Pascal Lamy

Mobile broadband should have exclusive use of the 700 MHz band of the European Union’s Ultra High Frequency spectrum by 2020, the European Commission was told today (1 September).

In return, terrestrial broadcasters should be guaranteed the remaining UHF spectrum below 700 MHz (470-694 MHz) until 2030, a report by Pascal Lamy for the executive recommended.

EU, national and international regulatory stability for broadcasters must be safeguarded, the report said.

Europe should reject any international plans at 2015’s World Radiocommunication Conference to give the 470-694 MHz band over to mobile, it added.  

The conference is to review and revise global spectrum rules, which are needed to prevent interference between users in different countries.

Lamy also backed a review by 2025, so the Commission can take any new technology or market developments into account, as part of its Digital Agenda For Europe programme.

The Lamy Report sets out a strategy to resolve broadcasters and mobile operators rival claims for the UHF spectrum, which is a finite resource. It is mostly used for broadcasting, mobile broadband and wireless microphones.

While the two industries had agreed that the 700 MHz band, currently used by broadcasters, should be repurposed for wireless broadband, they could not agree how and when.

The 2020 deadline should be plus or minus two years to take into account diversity in terrestrial broadcasting across the EU. Enough time is needed to make sure costs for consumers and spectrum users were minimised.

Former trade commissioner and World Trade Organisation chief Lamy spent six months discussing the issue with a group of broadcasters, network operators, mobile companies and tech associations before making his recommendations.

Presenting the report today in Brussels to Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes, he said, ‘’For too long the broadband and broadcasting communities have been at loggerheads about the use of the UHF spectrum band.

‘’I have put forward a single scheme that could provide a way forward for Europe to thrive in the digital century.’’

Kroes added, “Pascal’s report lays down a path for creating capacity for fast wireless broadband everywhere and for ensuring a stable and predictable future for terrestrial broadcasting.

“This [the report] is essential to secure our changing digital future and hold our own in international organisations.”

The European Commission today also decided to harmonise radio spectrum bands for microphones used at sport events and concerts. The wireless microphones also rely on the UHF band.

Under new rules, radio microphones for Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE) will have access to at least 59 MHz of EU spectrum, which can be increased at national level if necessary.

"The European Broadcasting Union believes safeguarding spectrum below 700MHz will enable public service broadcasters and the European audiovisual sector to continue reaching all sectors of the population, sustain broader content choice, and secure investments and innovation over the long term," said Simon Fell, the European Broadcasting Union's Head of Technology & Innovation.

“It is essential that broadcasters are not financially weakened by any loss of the 700MHz band.  Member states must heed the report's conclusions on compensation and transitional arrangements,” 

The EBU is concerned about the recommendations that the 700 MHz band be released to other stakeholders, especially mobile phone operators, by 2020 with the flexibility of +/- 2 years. 

"There is a danger that this will not give broadcasters and viewers enough time to adapt to appropriate spectrum arrangements and ensure the necessary upgrade of free-to-air digital terrestrial television (DTT) networks and consumer equipment, especially in countries where digital terrestrial television is the main TV platform," said Fell.

The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide. Director general Anne Bouverot said, ''We appreciate the European Commission’s efforts to address the future of this important spectrum and welcome the call for the 700MHz band to be repurposed for mobile broadband in the European Union by 2020. 

''To close the gap with North America and Asia, we believe it is essential that member states have flexibility to move sooner, preferably between 2018 and 2020 and potentially earlier, to respond to the sustained growth in mobile data traffic and the dramatic change in the way citizens across Europe are watching news and entertainment content, relying more and more on the Internet to access programming.

“We are concerned that the report’s recommendations on the sub-700MHz (470-694MHz) band could put Europe at a competitive disadvantage compared to other regions. Limiting Europe’s flexibility on the possible co-existence of mobile and digital broadcast services until 2030 will discourage investment in world-leading mobile networks. 

''We suggest that the following changes will safeguard the future of both mobile and broadcast services: Request an early review of the sub-700MHz band no later than 2020, instead of 2025, to ensure that Europe can respond to the rapidly evolving mobile and media markets and support a co-primary allocation between broadcast and mobile services for the sub-700MHz band at the World Radiocommunication Conference 2015, should a member state propose it, to provide flexibility for national decisions.

''We respectfully ask the European Commission to adopt a long-term strategy for the sub-700MHz band that allows individual member states to decide whether to keep traditional broadcast services in the spectrum or to provide more spectrum for mobile broadband to expand social and economic opportunity throughout Europe.”

The BBC has also reacted. Ralph Rivera, director, Future Media, said: “Europeans’ ever-growing appetite for great video is driving demand, whether in-home or mobile.

“This report caters for that demand via the coexistence of a thriving and innovative DTT platform alongside enhanced mobile data services. The BBC welcomes the recognition that broadcasters can only be expected to clear the 700MHz spectrum band if they receive certainty of access to their remaining spectrum and compensation for the transition.

“With concerted efforts to minimise disruption to DTT viewers and the evolving DTT platform, all communications consumers could stand to benefit. Mr Lamy's report builds on healthy cross-industry discussions and should be an important contribution to the policy debates in member states and in Brussels."

A spokesman for telecommunications company Huawei said, "We believe that this report is an important milestone on the road to securing the long-term development of high-speed wireless broadband services in Europe and we are glad to see that there is broad agreement on this key issue.

"We regret that stakeholders were not able to agree on a common way forward with regard to the deadline for releasing the 700 MHz band or on the approach to utilising the 470-694 MHz ranges. However, we fully understand the reasons for this lack of consensus. It is now up to the new Commission to continue the forward-looking initiatives to resolve these differences for the benefit of the European citizens."

Radio frequency spectrum is a limited part of the electromagnetic spectrum as a whole, but it is extremely important due to its capacity to carry codified messages. This makes it an essential resource for telecommunication services such as mobile telephones, TV and radio broadcasting, satellite and broadband communications.

The allocation of spectrum has been marked by intense debate between member states on which services should be prioritised and how countries can conduct spectrum auctions around the same time to make sure the roll out does not create an uneven playing field.

  • 2-27 November 2015: World Radiocommunication Conference
  • 2020: Deadline to dedicate 700 MHz band to mobile broadband
  • 2025: Review to access technology and market developments
  • 2030: Safeguards on regulation for terrestrial broadcasters to expire

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