Is it good to share? Tackling Europe’s spectrum shortage

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Given the increase in mobile traffic, EU policymakers are looking towards spectrum-sharing to free under-used bands and meet demand. But spectrum exclusively dedicated to the provision of mobile broadband is still the long-term solution of choice, argues Tom Phillips.

Tom Phillips is chief regulatory officer at GSMA, the organisation representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide.

Europe is facing a spectrum shortage. Given the exponential increase in mobile traffic and difficulties surrounding spectrum band clearing, European policy makers are currently looking into ways of freeing up under-used spectrum to meet the region’s ever-growing digital demands. Spectrum sharing is now favoured by many and could support the exclusive-access spectrum approach in the provision of mobile broadband – but it’s not a substitute.

In simple terms, the way that Licensed Shared Access spectrum works is that companies or public sector incumbents such as the military sell, lease or otherwise provide licensed spectrum to a mobile operator in areas where or at times when it is not being used.

This public sector arrangement, also known as vertical sharing, could be a useful stopgap for managing short-term peaks in demand, particularly in densely populated areas or at busy times of day. However, spectrum sharing alone will not solve the spectrum crunch, given that millions of Europeans are watching the latest Daft Punk video, managing their health records and controlling the heating in their homes, all through their mobile devices.

The complexities and uncertainties surrounding potential contractual arrangements and access restrictions can mean that mobile operators are less likely to view investment in the shared band as economically attractive or viable.

Shared spectrum arrangements need to work within a supportive regulatory framework for them to be fruitful. Our new research shows that exclusive-access spectrum in the 2.3GHz band could create around €86 billion of value for the European economy between 2016 and 2030. Meanwhile, shared licensing could sharply reduce economic benefits from €70 billion to as low as €5 billion, due to a lack of common approach in spectrum allocation across the Member States, combined with significant geographic and timing exclusions as well as potential contracting limitations.

Headline numbers aside, the impact of the lack of certainty surrounding shared spectrum will be felt across Europe, be it through poor quality broadband, lack of connectivity at peak times or inadequate coverage in rural areas. It will do nothing to advance the EU’s competitiveness or affect change in social inequalities, which the Digital Agenda is trying to address.

To attract investment and reap the full economic benefits of mobile broadband, regulators need to provide access to a critical mass of spectrum. This could be done, for example, by harmonising bands across the EU, using similar contractual terms and conditions, as well as limited geographic and timing exclusions.

Shared spectrum schemes do have a role to play in helping to meet Europe’s data demand but only if the right conditions are put in place. Consider it as a treatment rather than a cure for the region’s spectrum shortage.

Spectrum exclusively dedicated to the provision of mobile broadband is still the long-term solution of choice.

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