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EU releases 2G GSM-reserved spectrum into wild

Washes hands of 900MHz

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The EU has officially released the 900MHz spectrum formerly reserved for 2G GSM services, allowing other technologies into the space assuming that local regulators can sort out the historical mess.

The Council of Ministers has approved the Commission's proposal to allow other technologies into the slices of 900MHz where 2G GSM technology was mandated back in 1987, an approval that the EU reckons could save the industry €1.9bn - though that figure should be taken with a small truck full of salt. But while the move is one step in the direction of deregulation, 2G GSM will still have the spectrum to itself for a few years yet.

The move comes as no surprise: the GSMA (industry lobbying body) has been pushing for operators to be allowed to deploy 3G services at 900MHz for years, promising hugely improved coverage thanks to the additional propagation inherent at a lower frequency (3G is currently squeezed in at 2.1GHz, by EU mandate). In the UK the regulator, Ofcom, has stated its intention to modify the 900MHz licences at the earliest opportunity.

Which is where the problems start. Back in 1985 mobile telephony was a risky business, and Ofcom's predecessor decided to award (rather than sell) the 900MHz band to two competing operators to see how the business developed. 24 years later, Vodafone and O2 still have those chunks of 900MHz and are looking forward to deploying 3G, 4G and everything that follows, but T-Mobile, 3 and Orange spent billions on 2.1GHz spectrum on the basis that it was the only place where 3G would be permitted. So they are calling foul, and want a share of the newly-valuable 900MHz band.

That leaves Ofcom, in common with some other EU regulators, in an untenable position: someone is going to be upset, and no matter what they decide there'll certainly be legal battles to justify that decision as the aggrieved parties turn to m'learned friends.

The decision could also see different technologies deployed in different countries - the very thing the original mandating of GSM was intended to avoid. But these days the value of such roaming is well understood, and should push all the operators in the same direction (towards LTE) in the same way that EU legislation pushed them all towards GSM in the first place.

As for saving €1.9bn: that's based on a single company deciding to roll out a 3G service across Europe without having to worry about incumbents, regulators or spectrum availability. It's simply based on a comparison of cell sizes at 2.1GHz and 900MHz and concludes that you need less of the latter - if only life were that straightforward. ®

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