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Europe sets agenda for UHF spectrum re-use

This week the European Commission held its first meeting of the informal ‘High Level Group’ on the future of the UHF spectrum band. The group is being chaired by Pascal Lamy, a former chief of the World Trade Organisation and a former European Commissioner.

Lamy, together with executives from Europe’s broadcasters, network operators, mobile companies and technology associations, has been given six months to make proposals to the Commission on how to use the UHF spectrum band (470-790 MHz) most effectively in the coming decades.

“I expect these discussions to be quite challenging,” said Lamy. “Nobody will get everything they want, but I am confident that, based on an open discussion and a willingness to engage at the strategic level, we can deliver a coherent vision for Europe.”

“Europe needs to use spectrum more effectively if we want to benefit from the latest TV and internet developments,” commented Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda. “That’s why we need a new consensus on how to use broadcast spectrum, and that’s why I made the coordination of broadband spectrum a central feature of our effort to build a telecoms single market.”

The 800MHz band (part of the UHF spectrum) has already been released for mobile broadband, but Kroes was less than impressed with the process. She said it “showed that the old battle lines are still there” and that with the 700MHz spectrum they are “trying to find a way forward, and a path towards a more constructive, beneficial outcome”.

So what will happen to Europe’s 700MHz band? The EC’s new High Level Group will work to prepare Europe’s position ahead of the ITU’s WRC Conference in 2015, when definitive decisions are expected to be made. Kroes wants a final report from Lamy’s group delivered by July this year.

The advice of the High Level Group will help the Commission develop, in cooperation with the Member States, a long-term strategic and regulatory policy on the future use of the entire UHF band, including possibilities for sharing parts of the band.

“Current spectrum assignments won’t support consumer habits of the future – based on huge amounts of audiovisual consumption through broadband and IPTV,” said Kroes. “The rules need to catch-up in a way that delivers more and better television and more and better broadband.”

The Group has been asked to produce options that respond to four separate challenges:

What will next generation terrestrial provision and reception of video-based content look like?

How does the European Union secure the public interest and consumer benefits during this transformation?

What are the strategic elements of spectrum use in the UHF band and what would be the regulatory role of the EU?

What are the financial implications for a next-generation terrestrial platform for broadcasting and internet use?

Some Member States are considering allocating part of their 700MHz frequencies for wireless broadband, which would affect and be affected by terrestrial broadcasters in neighbouring countries. A coherent view of how Europe is going to develop the terrestrial platforms used by both services is needed, in order to promote investments in services and infrastructure.

Parts IV and V of the overall UHF band were freed up for mobile use as a result of the switchover from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasting. These “digital dividend” frequencies were ratified at the ITU’s WRC meeting in 2007, and concerned the 790–862MHz frequencies (i.e. 800MHz band) in most of Europe.

UHF is of interest to mobile broadband providers because its radio signals can propagate further distances than ones above the 1GHz limit of UHF. And whilst freeing up more of this spectrum for mobile use is of great interest to the mobile industry, it is a far less popular option with broadcasters who currently use the band. Getting consensus is not going to be easy.

The mobile operators included in the Commission’s High Level Group are Vodafone, Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, TeliaSonera and KPN. Other representatives include the BBC, EBU and the GSMA.

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