Sweden axes 700MHz spectrum sale over 'national security' fears

Say goodbye to better mobile coverage and hello to happy spies

In a surprise announcement, the Swedish government has scrapped its plans to auction off 700MHz spectrum citing security concerns.

The auction was due to begin on December 1 but acting director of the country's telecoms agency, Post & Telestyrelsen (PTS), Catarina Wretman announced she had decided to cancel it a month before launch citing "a changed security situation" and noting that "an investigation is underway on a developed and secure broadband solution for operators in the public order, health, security and defense."

Other official responses provided similar vaguely worded explanations. "The security policy development makes it all the more important that the state actors in public policy, public security, health and defense can communicate and exchange information effectively and safely," says another document. "The reason for the government's decision is thus the change in the security situation that allows the defense and public safety agencies use must be ensured."

A number of government ministers have also jumped in. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist noted: "Secure and developed communication is of vital importance for Sweden's security. This is particularly true of a total defense perspective."

And housing and digitization minister Peter Eriksson said: "It is necessary that the actors in the public order, security, health and defense can communicate and exchange information effectively and safely with each other. The government's view is that both interests must be reconciled."

Huh

What is going on? It's not entirely clear but given that the decision to run the auction was taken in 2014 and telecoms operators were preparing to spend billions of Swedish krona in just four weeks' time with a launch of April 2017, clearly it was a significant, high-level decision.

The 700MHz range is enormously valuable since it provides a terrific combination of range and data transfer rates at low wattage. It allows for large amounts of data sent over large distances and has traditionally been used for terrestrial analogue TV.

Due to its inherently valuable properties the spectrum has also been a favorite of government organizations, most notable the military, emergency services and, of course, the security services.

Telecoms agencies across the world are always extremely careful not to divulge exactly which frequencies such services use, with even the largely open US government giving a spectrum range and referring to the snoops' space by the euphemism "public safety allocation".

Due to the enormous value of the 694-790 MHz space however, commercial concerns have typically overridden security services' (and others') desire to keep large chunks of space to themselves. Plus digital technologies have meant that the spectrum can be much more finely divided.

Governments across the world, from the US, to Australia, to Germany, France and the UK have all announced their intention to auction off the spectrum so mobile operators can use it to deal with ever-expanding demand for mobile data and governments can received multi-billion-dollar windfalls.

Plan

Typically the time between announcing the plan and the auction happening has been used for government agencies to shift their equipment into more narrowly defined areas which are then kept reserved and not made available for auction.

Something seems to have gone awry with the Swedish system, however, and the decision to kill the auction just a month out is a clear sign that government agencies do not expect to be able to make the shift in the available time.

There is also the implicit suggestion that some government agency has refused to budge and has threatened to dig its heels in with the Swedish government stating that it "believes that among other things is a need for a judicial review of certain frequency issues."

So where does it go from here? Well, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) has basically been given a year to figure out a solution to whatever concerns have been raised with the hope of restarting the auction in mid-2018. In the meantime, the TV companies currently using the space will continue to do so.

One person who isn't happy with the decision is Telia's CEO Johan Dennelind. He took to Twitter to call the decision "a step back for Sweden." ®

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