New EU rules to favour smartphone use

The EU institutions this week sealed a deal which is expected to pave the way for the further dissemination in Europe of smartphones, such as BlackBerry or iPhones, and increase the number of customers for mobile Internet services.

EU ministers decided on Monday (28 July) to support a review of the GSM Directive, proposed by the European Commission in 2008 and already approved by the European Parliament. The directive dates back to 1987 and has been a key piece of legislation, allowing the Europe-wide – and ultimately global – spread of the EU’s GSM (Global System for Mobile) standard for mobile telephony.

The directive reserved part of the high-quality 900MHz spectrum band for GSM-based technologies. This gave legal certainty to operators, which started investing in mobile services that rely on the GSM standard. The result is that mobile penetration in Europe now stands at 120%, which means more than one handset per EU citizen.

The EU institutions now want to repeat the success of the GSM by promoting new standards for broadband mobile Internet access. As part of this strategy, they decided to review the original GSM Directive to allow new-generation UMTS services (used by smartphones) to operate in the 900MHz frequency band. So far, they have been confined to a less profitable band (see ‘Background’).

GSM-based services cover 95% of the European population, while UMTS services reach around 60% of EU citizens, with even lower territory coverage. “By allowing UMTS mobile phones to use the GSM band, we expect a quicker penetration of their services and a growth in mobile Internet users,” a Commission official told EURACTIV.

Technological developments today allow the use of the same band for more services, but frequencies are limited and the offer of new services is in any case restricted by physical barriers. Interference is a risk that must not be ruled out.

The key reform in opening the door to a genuine mobile Internet revolution thus lies in freeing up new frequencies, rather than in adapting the same bands to more services (see EURACTIV Links Dossier).

This is the target of a large portion of the EU’s telecoms package, which reviews the telecoms legal landscape in Europe. However, a Commission proposal to exploit the digital dividend (due to the switch-over from analogue to digital TV) and favour the development of new mobile-based services is currently blocked over a political row which is holiding the entire package hostage (EURACTIV 12/06/09).

Broadband mobile Internet services are currently provided via new generation mobile phones (3G and 4G, often called smartphones), which mainly use specific bandwidths (the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, UMTS). These are better suited to carrying more data, but only have short ranges. As a consequence, antennae are multiplying in urban centres, while rural areas are being left behind by the new trend.

According to figures used by the European Commission, in December 2008 the customer base for 3G services was estimated at 90 million people across the EU with peaks in Italy, Austria, Sweden and the UK, where they exceeded 20% of the total number of mobile phone subscribers.

Mobile Internet is widely seen as the future of the Web. Yahoo!, one of the companies which is investing most in mobile Internet, predicts that in less than ten years, the majority of Web users will access the net via their mobile handsets (EURACTIV 15/05/08).

  • Sept. 2009: Revised GSM Directive to enter into force.

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