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EU shoves telly signals aside for next-gen mobile broadband

LTE: A-roaming we will go

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Every country in Europe will be required to clear TV transmissions out of the 800MHz band by the end of 2012 in the hope of enabling cross-europe roaming for LTE phones.

The edict comes from the European Parliament, which hopes that if the range is cleared in time then countries will adopt matching band plans to enable roaming. The parliament isn't mandating harmonisation, not yet, but will revisit the issue before 2015 to see if it's necessary.

The 800MHz band is being cleared as part of the switch to digital television, which squeezes more channels into fewer frequencies. That opens up gaps at the top and bottom of the band, and this agreement covers the top gap. This frequency reshuffle is needed to release the 1.2GHz of bandwidth that the EU reckons will be needed by 2015.

That figure is based on our unquenchable, and exponentially increasing, thirst for mobile bandwidth - and even if we don't go on consuming data it would be nice to think we can easily slurp web pages and other traffic across Europe just as we can make calls today.

Phone comms standard GSM runs in all sorts of bands, but within those bands it uses frequencies that allow the same handsets to be used around the world. So when we talk about O2 and Vodafone running (UK) GSM in "the 900MHz band" they actually use alternating stripes starting at 880.1MHz and running up to 959.9MHz with a gap at 915.9MHz - the lower block being used to send one's voice to the base station, and the upper carrying the other person's voice back.

That's important as it means a handset knows where to look for a signal, when at home or abroad, and is part of the GSM (2G) standard. 3G is even more standardised, originally operating only in the 2.1GHz band with well-specified frequency slots, meaning that 3G roaming is even more reliable and consistent than 2G.

LTE, on the other hand, promises to be a nightmare for frequent flyers and handset manufacturers alike. There are more than 40 bands allocated to LTE around the world, and little in the way of standardisation with TDD and FDD variants being deployed in the same band in different regions. 2.6GHz is the most widely recognised band for LTE, but 800MHz is a close second with Europe in an ideal position to push it.

The Global Certification Forum, which audits handsets for interoperability, has so far approved 15 LTE devices, five of which operate across the EU-approved 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands though three of those were approved in the last couple of months.

LTE will never be as portable as GSM or 3G - the bands used around the world will never align despite the EU's efforts. 4G roaming will be complicated outside the EU, even if becomes possible within it.

The solution, for the international traveller, is to shift telephony into the cloud (via Skype or similar) and use a local device for IP connectivity, but that's not going to help device manufacturers who are going to have to spin their handsets for a world of different markets. ®

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