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By Joe Kirwin
May 26 — European Union member states are backing a radio frequency re-allocation plan that sets a 2020 deadline for shifting use of technologically desirable airwaves from broadcasting to mobile broadband applications.
The EU Council of Ministers agreed to the plan for repurposing the 694-790 megahertz (MHz) frequency band—commonly referred to as 700 MHz spectrum— in a May 26 meeting in Brussels. It also agreed to continue reserving sub-700 MHz frequencies for digital terrestrial television (DTT) until 2030. The European Parliament must still approve the spectrum allocation plan.
The decision to reallocate 700 MHz spectrum, considered critical to accelerating the slow roll out of 4G mobile services in many parts of the EU and enabling timely delivery of 5G wireless applications, follows formal approval of the plan at the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC).
“With the opening of the 700 MHz band for mobile broadband, an important step towards the availability of broadband for everybody in the EU has been taken,” Henk Kamp, the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs said at a May 26 press conference.
The agreement allows some flexibility for EU member states to use the sub-700 MHz spectrum bands for alternative applications, including mobile broadband service, but only if services will not cause interference with neighboring broadcast services.
European broadcasters successfully opposed any flexibility in use of the lower-frequency bands. DigitalEurope, a technology trade group, and the European Commission are concerned that delaying repurposing of the bands will impact investments and competitiveness.
A European Commission spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA that the EU member state agreement on sub-700 MHz bandwidth—which it characterized as a “diluted approach” —will lead to “fragmented national approaches for alternative non-TV broadcasting use.'' It said, “The diluted approach may make Europe merely depend on developments in other parts of the world, such as the United States, whenever [member states] decide to use the sub 700 MHz spectrum for new services earlier” than 2030.
EU telecom ministers spoke against a proposal to transfer spectrum management responsibilities from national governments to the European Commission. The EU executive insists the transfer is necessary to achieve seamless transnational mobile coverage required to support new Internet of Things (IoT) services such as connected cars.
The WRC is held every three to four years to review and revise as necessary the Radio Regulations, an international treaty governing the use of radio-frequency spectrum around the world.
Ensuring the sub-700 MHz bandwidth for DTT broadcasters, Kamp said, “ gives the audiovisual sector long-term regulatory predictability as regards the availability of sufficient spectrum so that it can continue to provide and develop services and secure necessary investment.”
The decision to release 700 MHz spectrum for mobile broadband use by 2020 was welcomed by the European GSM Association—which represents the major mobile operators including Deutsche Telecom AG, Telefonica S.A., Vodafone Group plc and Orange S.A., among others—albeit with a warning.
“We are hoping to see a different scenario than we had with the implementation of the 800 MHz [spectrum], where certain countries requested longer periods of time to release the band,” John Giusti, an official with the European GSM Association said in a May 26 statement.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which represents national state-owned broadcasters throughout Europe, has lobbied hard against the 2020 deadline for the 700 MHz transition to mobile broadband.
“Moving DTT services out of the 700 MHz band by 2020 is a major challenge, in particular for those member states where DTT is the main platform to receive television,” the EBU's Jacques Lovell told Bloomberg BNA. “In Europe, 250 million people receive their television services through DTT.”
The EBU says that EU member countries must compensate broadcasters in order for them to make the investment needed to implement the change, including infrastructure modifications, as well as consumers affected by the reallocation.
The EBU was successful in watering down the European Commission's supplemental downlink proposal put forward in February that called for EU member country flexibility in using sub-700 MHz spectrum band for downlink use beginning in 2020.
DigitalEurope, which represents information technology companies including Apple Corp. and Google Inc., sees the agreement for using sub-700 MHz spectrum as too vague.
“A coordinated approach, such as the supplemental downlink option, would offer technological neutrality and make usage device-agnostic, delivering a pragmatic and forward-looking balance for various stakeholders,” said John Higgins, the group's director general, in a May 26 statement. Higgins also said that failure to precisely back the European Commission approach to the sub-700 MHz spectrum band “would not only increase the risk of signal interference, it would also fail in bringing direction to the industry and put off investment.”
EU telecom ministers took a mixed view on whether Over-The-Top (OTT) services such as VoIP should be regulated. European Commission Digital Agenda Commissioner Gunther Oettinger, who is overseeing the work to draw up the new EU regulatory framework proposals, supports telecom companies that believe OTT services receive a regulatory free ride and are encouraging the EC to regulate them.
“The fact is that all of the OTT companies are American, from Silicon Valley,” Oettinger said. “I am talking about Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google and others. And we are paying for that. We have to take measures to ensure a level playing field and one that will promote European innovation.”
Following the EU member state agreement on the 700 MHz and sub-700MHz spectrum re-allocation plans, the European Parliament will take up the issue in the coming months. Differences between the European Parliament and EU member states must be resolved before the legislation becomes law. The European Commission is hoping for an agreement by the end of 2016 so the spectrum re-allocation for 700 MHz can begin in 2017 and be finalized by 2020. Germany and France have already begun to use the 700 MHz spectrum for mobile broadband.
By Joe Kirwin
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Proposal for a Decision of the European Parliament and of the Council on the use of the 470-790 MHz frequency band in the Union - General approach is available at http://src.bna.com/fnF.
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