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EU could force countries to allocate 700 MHz band to mobile by mid-2020

New law deals with expected growth in mobile internet traffic

Cell tower, view from below. Image by Shutterstock.com

New legislation could force EU countries to make sure the 700 MHz band of spectrum is made exclusively available for mobile services by the middle of 2020.

The European Commission has published proposals to introduce new laws that would require EU countries to “allow the use of the 694-790 MHz frequency band for terrestrial systems capable of providing wireless broadband electronic communications services”, in accordance with technical conditions it will lay out by 30 June 2020.

The move will require some digital terrestrial television (DTT) services to be shifted onto other frequencies. Similarly, wireless microphones used in programme making and special events (PMSE), such as theatre and musical productions and at sporting events, may also need to operate on alternative airwaves.

The Commission said the move is necessary to free up spectrum to accommodate the expected growth in mobile internet traffic that is forecast. The timetable for implementation is set to coincide with the availability of new '5G' connectivity, it said.

In a document detailing its legislative proposal and decision to adopt those plans, the Commission set out its reasons for seeking harmonisation through new legislation.

"The EU should decide how it intends to use the 700 MHz frequency band [694-790 MHz band] in the future if it wants to avoid divergent national approaches and limit interference across borders," it said. "The absence of a Union-wide common legislation for the UHF (ultra-high frequency) band would create detrimental fragmentation in the use of the UHF band within the Union. Fragmentation leads to cross-border interference, which could affect up to 13% of the EU population."

"Therefore, there is a need for a coordinated designation and authorisation of the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband by 2020," it said.

The Commission's plans would also impose a legislative requirement on all EU countries to "ensure availability of the 470-694 MHz frequency band or parts of the band for the terrestrial provision of audiovisual media services to mass audiences, including free television, and for use by wireless audio PMSE equipment, based on national broadcasting needs".

Under those plans, EU countries would have to ensure that "any other use of the 470-694 MHz frequency band on their territory does not cause harmful interference with the terrestrial provision of audiovisual media services in a neighbouring member state".

The Commission's proposals would need to be approved by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers, which is made up of representatives from the governments of EU countries, for them to become binding law.

Telecoms law expert Diane Mullenex of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the Commission's proposals are likely to be the first among other similar plans that push for greater harmonisation of spectrum policy across the EU.

"Harmonisation of spectrum policy in the EU is a central pillar of the Commission's drive to establish a true digital single market in the EU by 2020," Mullenex said. "Greater harmonisation is important because at the moment there are a number of major differences in the approach taken to spectrum regulation across the EU, both in terms of timescales and use allocation. This serves to drive up costs for businesses."

"Harmonisation can help deliver interoperability and economies of scale, but it is important that there is a degree of flexibility in spectrum harmonisation proposals to enable innovation. In this respect it is welcome that the Commission's plans regarding the designation of the 700 MHz band for mobile serves are technologically neutral, which is crucial considering that '5G' has yet to be defined from a technical perspective," she said.

Mullenex said that the Commission's plans, if implemented, would accelerate EU countries' moves to auction off their spectrum in the 700 MHz band ahead of the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2023. She said any moves by EU policy makers to coordinate the approach to spectrum allocation in the EU needs to take account of the decisions taken at a global level.

France and Germany have already designated the 700 MHz band for mobile services and four other countries, including the UK have outlined similar plans to do so over the next few years,

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom announced in November 2014 that it would be allocating the 694-790 MHz band for mobile data services in the UK "by the beginning of 2022, and potentially sooner". In November last year the UK government confirmed that it will invest up to £550 million over the course of the current parliament "to make the 700 MHz spectrum band available for mobile broadband use".

In its November 2014 statement, Ofcom referenced research it had commissioned Analysys Mason to conduct into the benefits that designating the 700 MHz band for mobile services only could bring by way of "improved network performance and network cost savings".

Ofcom forecast performance benefits and cost savings valuing between £900 million and £1.3 billion for the 20 year period starting from 2022. However, it said that bigger benefits could be derived if the shift in spectrum use could be completed sooner.

However, there are a number of technical challenges involved in migrating existing digital terrestrial TV (DTT) providers and other users of wireless audio PMSE equipment from the 700 MHz band to other frequencies.

According to Ofcom's November 2014 statement, Arqiva said that DTT transmitters could begin to be moved to new frequencies from 2019 and that "from an engineering perspective the programme of DTT frequency changes could be complete by the end of 2021".

If the European Commission's proposals are implemented as drafted, the timescales for that change programme would shorten.

Last September UK minister for culture and communications Ed Vaizey told a parliamentary committee that whilst he broadly supports moves to harmonise spectrum use across the EU he is opposed to "forced harmonisation" through EU law.

Vaizey's views were repeated in an official government response to an EU consultation on reforming EU telecoms regulations, published in December.

In that paper the government stressed "the need for non-legislative approaches to the coordination of spectrum"  (36-page / 426KB PDF) and said that "international coordination of spectrum beyond the EU, through existing mechanisms like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), can be more valuable than EU coordination alone".

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