European 700MHz band should be freed for mobile broadband by 2020, report says

The extra spectrum is needed to meet increasing demand for video on mobile devices

Europe's 700MHz band should be freed for mobile broadband by 2020, a report to the European Commission recommends.

The extra spectrum is needed to meet increasing demand for video on tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices.

The 700MHz Ultra High Frequency (UHF) spectrum is currently used for terrestrial broadcasting networks and wireless microphones, but it should be dedicated to wireless broadband across Europe around 2020, proposed a report prepared by former Commissioner Pascal Lamy.

While there is no immediate need for wireless use of that spectrum band in Europe, the report set a deadline for the assignment to mobile around 2020 with a margin of two years before or after. This leaves time for a proper transition period, likely to bring down costs for both consumers and broadcasters, the Commission said.

The report also proposed that the remaining UHF spectrum below 700MHz be safeguarded for broadcasters until 2030. Europe should also reject any plans for primary allocation of mobile to the 470-694MHz band at the World Radiocommunication Conference 2015. A review to assess technology and market developments should be planned for 2025, the report proposed.

While there was a lot of common ground in the group, involving top executives from Europe's broadcasters, network operators, mobile companies and tech associations, differences remained between the mobile and broadcasting communities on two key issues. First, they couldn't agree on the flexibility around the target date for repurposing the 700MHz band. They also couldn't agree on the duration of the period during which the spectrum below the 700MHz band should remain allocated exclusively to broadcasting in the EU.

Because a compromise package could not be agreed on, Lamy prepared the report himself, the Commission said.

The GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide said in a news release that it welcomed the call for the 700MHz band to be repurposed.

However, to close the gap with North America and Asia, "it is essential that Member States have flexibility to move sooner, preferably between 2018 and 2020 and potentially earlier," Anne Bouverot, director general of the GSMA said in a statement. This should be possible to respond to the sustained growth in mobile data traffic and the dramatic change in the way citizens across Europe are watching news and entertainment content, relying more and more on the Internet to access programming, she said.

But six years is a long time to free up the 700MHz band given that industry deployments could be up and running within three years, said Sylvain Fabre, research director at Gartner. "It means that Europe is going to be, yet again, a bit late in the game," he said, pointing at 700MHz initiatives in other regions.

However, freeing up the 700MHz band is not the only thing that can be done to boost mobile broadband, he said, adding that there are also other bands that are being looked at by Europe.

The GSMA is also concerned that the report's recommendations on the sub-700MHz band could put Europe at a competitive disadvantage compared to other regions, it said.

"Limiting Europe's flexibility on the possible co-existence of mobile and digital broadcast services until 2030 will discourage investment in world-leading mobile networks," Bouverot said.

The GSMA urged the Commission to review the sub-700 MHz band no later than 2020, instead of 2025, to ensure that Europe can respond to rapidly evolving mobile and media markets. The strategy should allow individual member states to decide whether to keep traditional broadcast services in the sub-700MHz spectrum or provide more spectrum for mobile broadband to expand, Bouverot said.

Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, said in a statement that the proposals by Lamy ensure "a stable and predictable future for terrestrial broadcasting, while allowing those Member States that want to move forward more quickly to do so."

"It would also ensure sustainable co-existence, as both sectors focus increasingly on advanced media services. This is essential to secure our changing digital future and hold our own in international negotiations," she added.

The current Commission's term of office runs until the end of October. 

It is expected that the next Commission will use the report in any future proposals they make on spectrum, a Commission official said in an email, adding that, as it sets out a clear timeline and all parties have had open discussions for the first time, it is a good starting point.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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