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Europe pushes TV spectrum sell-off

Mandatory sale to boost broadband

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The European Commission has proposed requiring member countries to sell off TV frequencies by 2013, and allow wireless broadband elsewhere by 2012.

The proposal is based on Europe's commitment to broadband for all by 2013, and 30Mb/s by 2020. It serves to prod countries lagging behind on that schedule, which could be backed up with fines if the European Parliament agrees. Those countries, and everyone else, will have to deregulate 900MHz and 1800MHz and sell off 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz by 2012. They'll also have to get shot of the old TV frequencies at 800MHz (the digital dividend) by January 1 2013.

The 30Mb/s won't all be wireless, but it is supposed to reach every EU citizen, so it seems likely some of it will have to be radio. The EC also reckons we need a coordinating body to ensure compatibility between countries to enable roaming and to create an economy of scale for manufacturers.

GSM, which works so well, is limited to a handful of frequency slots, so when a phone is switched on it only has to check a few bands to find a compatible operator or two. But LTE (the preferred 4G standard) can run all over the place, making roaming a good deal harder which is why a new body might be needed.

When it comes to the schedule, the UK is doing OK, though given the history of litigation and argument we'd hate to bet on things staying that way. Ofcom has been trying to flog off 2.6GHz for years now, only to be blocked by T-Mobile and O2. Then there was a general election and now the frequency is lumped into the mega auction that was supposed to happen this year but is rapidly slipping into 2011.

That mega auction will include 800MHz (where analogue TV is still transmitted, in some areas), but it can't go ahead until the legal tussle around 900/1800MHz has been resolved.

That row is over the way that O2 and Vodafone had 900MHz spectrum allocated to them way back when they launched. The other operators reckon it's not fair that O2 and Vodafone will be allowed to run high speed broadband networks at frequencies that were handed over for 2G voice networks.

Ofcom has made numerous proposals to resolve that, and the options seem to be solidifying, but it's hard to imagine that any final ruling won't be disputed in court by at least one network operator which feels unfairly treated, and this will delay things again. Not that any of this spectrum will be available until after the London Olympics anyway - Ofcom wants to make sure there's plenty of free airspace for the visiting media and event coordinators.

But despite all the disagreements, the UK is still way ahead of many EU countries, many of which will oppose a mandated timetable for selling off their airwaves - even if Germany has already managed it. ®

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