Day 1, European Spectrum Management Conference: Mobile drives in to the 700MHz band

Day 1, The 7th Annual European Spectrum Management Conference, Brussels

Radio spectrum is the life blood of a wide range of industries competing for access, and the debate between mobile and terrestrial TV has been particularly fierce. The announcement at the World Radio Conference 2012 (WRC) that the 700MHz band is to be allocated to mobile from 2015 has caught many European broadcasters off guard. The removal of 700MHz from broadcasting, equivalent to one third of terrestrial SD channels, threatens the future of a terrestrial platform that for many countries has been the driver of their content and advertising industries, delivering significant economic and cultural value and the mechanism of choice to achieve key public policy objectives.

But the mobile industry’s thirst for new spectrum is unrelenting, driven by unprecedented consumer demand for mobile data services. The European Commission has set a target of identifying 1200MHz of new spectrum for mobile by 2015. The sub-1 GHz bands currently allocated to TV offer attractive technical properties that operators argue will deliver a better quality of service for consumers at significantly lower cost. It is also clear that mobile is a major source of future innovation across many industries, including content, and it would be wrong to inadvertently stifle these opportunities.

So should 700MHz go to mobile? Although no decision will officially be made until WRC 2015, presentations made yesterday during the first day of the European Spectrum Management Conference points to an overwhelming weight of support at a European level forcing through approval.

There were clear signs yesterday on the first day of The 7th Annual European Spectrum Management Conference in Brussels that the decision to reallocate 700MHz to mobile will be difficult to prevent. While Pearse O’Donohue, Head of Spectrum Policy at the European Commission reaffirmed that no decision has officially been taken, there was wide ranging support from senior European policy makers for the reallocation.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes, Vice President, Digital Agenda at the European Commission made it clear that European nations should harmonise their spectrum plans with the rest of the world, and that the EC has already identified over 1000MHz of harmonised spectrum yet to be released  (including the 700MHz band). Her views were backed up by Roberto Viola, Chairman of the Radio Spectrum Policy Group (RSPG) who warned against Europe taking a decision in isolation of the Rest of the World. Gunnar Hokmark, MEP and Rapporteur for the RSPG went further in saying [paraphrasing] “the 700MHz band is important to Europe’s mobile economy, it’s controversial and more difficult for some member states than others, but it is essential”.

Harmonisation

Commissioner Kroes and Roberto Viola argued for harmonisation of spectrum bands. This is  important for a number of reasons, but the main driver is that the mobile industry needs a critical mass of operators and manufacturers across the world to develop for a new spectrum band. Mobile is a complex value chain comprising silicon developers, equipment manufacturers of network equipment and mobile devices, and the network operators themselves. Without multi-national, cross value chain consensus, it is almost impossible to make the business case to fund the significant R&D and deployment costs for new spectrum.

These economies of scale are particularly important in European markets whose limited size is unable to offer the benefits of the US, India and China. And as technology deployment costs increase, harmonisation at a global levels becomes increasingly attractive. Bashir Gwandu, Executive Commissioner of the Nigerian Communications Commission stated, “we want a solution adopted by as many people as possible because the more harmonisation we get, the cheaper the cost of equipment and better the service for consumers”.

Global harmonisation offers significant benefits for consumer too, not just in the cost of devices and services, but also because it allows handset manufacturers and operators to bring innovations to the market quickly. According to Roberto Ercole at the GSMA, if Europe adopts an approach that contrasts the Rest of the World, it could take 3-4 years for new handsets to be customised for the specific technology needs of the European market.

So harmonisation is important, but critically, the 700MHz band has already been earmarked by the Arab, African and Asia-Pacific regions as a key element of their mobile broadband plans. Already, the Asia Pacific Telecommunity (APT) have submitted to the ITU a request to release spectrum from 698-806MHz for mobile. Arab and African nations have also taken a firm stance on delivering broadband to consumers as quickly as possible via mobile. Broadband access is an essential utility of the modern economy and in the poorest African countries, more people have a mobile phone than a bank account. The 700MHz band is essential to mobile broadband delivery in these countries, especially given that they were unable to deploy 4G in the 800MHz band. The urgency of broadband deployment in these markets means they will not wait for a drawn-out regulatory process.

The global movement towards 700MHz for mobile and the call for harmonisation from Europe presents a compelling case for the WRC proposals to be approved in 2015.

Leadership

MEP Gunnar Hokmark went further by suggesting the 700MHs reallocation is essential to the European mobile industry. There is clear political and public policy interest in accelerating Europe’s innovation in the mobile space. Historically, Europe has always been a leader in the introduction of GSM, 3G and new spectrum releases. But the Digital Dividend to release the 800MHz band for 4G services has suffered significant delay, with 10 EU member states set to miss the 2013 deadline. There are wide reaching calls to accelerate Europe’s position in driving mobile innovation, and the 700MHz band offers an opportunity for policy makers and politicians to demonstrate Europe’s leadership.

The weight of support at a European and Global level to reallocate the 700MHz band to mobile appears too strong to combat, and this has wide ranging consequences for the terrestrial TV broadcasters. It seems to me that the real question for WRC 2015 is not whether the 700MHz band should be reallocated to mobile, but should Europe opt in or opt out of the decisions of the global community? And assuming we do, is there an approach to reallocation and reorganisation of the UHF band that can deliver benefits to both mobile and broadcasting?

If you’ve got an opinion, you have to move quickly. Francois Rancy, Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau at the ITU made it clear that all the issues need to be put on the table at the Joint Task Group meeting in Geneva on 27th July 2012 if they are to be considered for WRC 2015.

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