The EC recently adopted a decision establishing the technical harmonization of the 800MHz band. It also announced the possibility of allocating the 800MHz band for the exclusive use of wireless broadband during 2010.
Both actions are backed up by the prospective economic benefits and increase in coverage that they could generate. Allocation of the 800MHz band exclusively to wireless broadband could help the EC and national NRAs tick many boxes, including their objectives to improve coverage and tackle the digital divide. It will also please MNOs who are on the lookout for additional spectrum to cater for the rapid growth in mobile broadband.
With the technical harmonization of the 800MHz (790–862MHz) band, any EU member country that decides to adopt the 800MHz band for uses other than broadcasting must do so under harmonized technical conditions.
This will reduce interference and bring economic benefits, enabling vendors to leverage economies of scale and driving down handset and network equipment costs (as seen in the past with the harmonization of GSM frequencies). The EU believes that harmonized spectrum management could generate an additional €44 billion for the European economy.
In parallel with its technical harmonization decision, the EC also announced that it is analyzing the possibility of allocating the 800MHz band for the exclusive use of wireless broadband. If agreed, this decision should be presented to the European Parliament and Council by mid-2010.
At first sight, the idea of imposing the exclusive usage of wireless broadband in the 800MHz band could seem a contradictory decision, since in the past the EC has generally advocated a technology-neutral approach. But we believe it is a sound decision considering the current characteristics of 800MHz coverage and the spontaneous harmonization of this band already taking place in Europe.
Both of the EC’s recent announcements are intended to fortify the growth of mobile broadband with the aim of reducing the digital divide, helping the EC to achieve its target of broadband coverage for 100% of the EU population by 2013.
Clearing the 800MHz band will be challenging
Many countries have already allocated the 800MHz band for wireless broadband (including Finland, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, and the UK), due to the band’s suitability for penetrating buildings and for enabling coverage of larger areas with few base stations.
The EC’s proposal to assign the spectrum exclusively for wireless broadband is likely to result in a number of further countries following suit in the near future.
Once the decision to use the band for mobile broadband has been finalized, work must begin to clear it of existing uses (such as analog broadcasting). In some instances this will be a relatively easy process.
Most countries have committed to switch off their analog TV signals before the EU deadline of 2012, but very few have planned how the freed-up spectrum will be allocated. Only in Germany has an auction actually taken place: this was finalized on 20 May and raised a total of €4.4 billion.
While Germany had a straightforward process in place and successfully auctioned the 800MHz, 1.8GHz, 2.0GHz, and 2.6GHz bands simultaneously, this won’t be the case for other countries such as the UK.
Here, the situation with respect to the 800MHz band has been complicated by the need to re-farm the 900MHz spectrum band for 3G and allocate the 2.6GHz band. Unequal 900MHz spectrum holdings among the operators led Ofcom to reassess spectrum holdings between the operators.
Currently, there are plans for an overall spectrum cap on each operator. The lesson from this experience is that NRAs must consider what operators intend to do with the spectrum before they package and award it.
Most operators are likely to initially deploy LTE in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands, so making these bands available at the same time (as was the case in Germany) would be a sensible first move.