EU frees up the 900-MHz band for other uses

OvumThe European Union (EU) last month finally approved a new GSM directive allowing the use of new technologies in the 900-MHz band. The measure will allow operators to provide additional services such as mobile broadband in a frequency band that could previously only be used by GSM and GPRS technologies.

The directive will allow governments to put their spectrum re-farming plans in practice and will contribute to the expansion of broadband coverage that many governments in Europe have been pursuing. The measure will have an even bigger impact on the UK, which now has just six months to solve its two-year dilemma over spectrum holding.

The final version of the updated directive and new guidelines setting out technical measures to allow the co-existence of GSM (2G) and UMTS (3G) systems on the 900-MHz frequency band are expected to be released by September; after that the EU member countries will have six months to implement the directive, which will also facilitate the use of 4G broadband technologies to be deployed in the 900-MHz band in the longer term.

Until now the implementation of the new directive has been delayed because it was part of the ongoing framework review, which was held up because of controversy over the reinstatement of an amendment to the review. By taking the decision to separate the vote from the telecoms package, the EC has avoided further delays to a process that is expected to bring savings of up to €1.6 billion through more efficient management of the radio spectrum.

A helping hand
The renewed directive has the potential to expand the rollout of wireless broadband services and give European countries an extra push to elaborate on their existing spectrum re-farming plans. The expansion of mobile broadband coverage is a topic that has been much discussed by the EU member countries, particularly the subject of widening the Universal Service Obligation (USO) to include broadband. Wireless solutions would fit ideally with the desired expansion of broadband access in rural areas and EU policy targets of having broadband for all Europeans by 2010 and high-speed internet broadband for all Europeans by 2013.

Because of the ongoing delays to the spectrum re-farming process, most countries in Europe have already developed their spectrum re-farming plans – although with this development regulators should spring into action.

The measure adds difficulty to the UK’s unequal spectrum holding issue, but at the same time gives it a deadline.

The directive comes at a good time for countries such as Finland, France, Germany and the UK, adding more clarity to their recently launched digital strategy plans. However, at the moment the release of spectrum is probably much more relevant to the UK than to other European countries. Since 2007 the country has been trying to solve the problem of unequal spectrum holding between its operators. While regulator Ofcom is not obliged by the directive to consider these factors, it does have an obligation to promote the interests of consumers. Currently Vodafone and O2 hold the entire 900-MHz spectrum band, and if the spectrum is liberalized simply in the hands of the incumbent operators then Orange, T-Mobile and 3 UK could potentially be left at a serious competitive disadvantage.

As a result of Digital Britain, the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) will provide directions to Ofcom on how to act in regards to the spectrum holding. The good news is that progress has been made, with the independent spectrum broker’s proposal to establish spectrum caps to solve the inequality of holdings. With this renewed sense of urgency and extra push, the UK’s long-running saga may finally come to an end.