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Spectrum goes liberal at EU level

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While anti-piracy measures may have grabbed the headlines, the EU's Telecoms Package also endorses Ofcom-style spectrum liberalisation across Europe - to a point.

The package, which was voted in today, states that radio spectrum should not be allocated by application; licensees should be free to do with it as they will. But it also tasks the Radio Spectrum Policy Group to oversee those occasions where the EU would like to override licensees' opinions.

Radio frequencies were historically allocated by the regulator for specific applications, such as broadcasting TV or connecting mobile phones. These days, however, companies want the freedom to use their licensed spectrum for anything - a desire fully endorsed by the UK's regulator Ofcom which leads the world in deregulating radio use.

Sometimes it is useful, or necessary, to reserve a particular frequency for a particular application: satellites don't respect national borders and thus need worldwide allocations, but that's handled by the UN through the International Telecommunications Union. EU-wide agreements are more likely about achieving economies of scale.

The success of GSM can be largely attributed to its standardisation across Europe. Harmonisation of both frequency and technology meant a single mobile phone or piece of network equipment could be used anywhere, creating enormous economies of scale and a success that the EU has been trying to replicate ever since.

These days radios are more agile, so the necessity for standard frequencies is less pressing, and it's highly unlikely that national regulators are going to let the EU dictate much spectrum usage. So the RSPG will end up creating "guideline" documents and "optional" standards that can safely be ignored.

The problem for the RSPG is that anything it does will have to be approved by the BEREC, which was also created today. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications started life as an EU super-regulator, but got watered down several times into a talking shop comprised of representatives from the national regulators.

So from a spectrum point of view we can expect to see less regulation, but more regulators, across Europe. ®

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