LTE refarming gathers pace in Europe

Refarming of spectrum for LTE continues to garner support across Europe, with the most recent decision of the UK’s regulator Ofcom to allow the Orange UK and T-Mobile UK joint venture Everything Everywhere to use 1800-MHz spectrum for 4G services.
European nations are under a European Commission (EC) mandate to allow refarming - otherwise known as the use of existing 2G spectrum bands for the provision of technology neutral services including LTE.
While many nations in the region have complied with the mandate, others have dragged their feet. In the UK case, this decision is of particular importance given ongoing dispute and delays in the regulator’s plans to allocate new spectrum in the 800-MHz and 2.6-GHz bands. Under Ofcom’s current timeframe, an auction is set to proceed in early 2013. In addition, Ofcom’s 1800-MHz refarming decision will also apply to 3 UK, which is poised to acquire 2x15-MHz of 1800-MHz spectrum from Everything Everywhere as a result of divestiture requirements placed on approval of the UK joint venture.
Where spectrum refarming has been permitted, operators launching 4G services in conventional bands have largely used spectrum holdings in the 1800-MHz band. This is particularly the case in markets in Eastern Europe where operators are also awaiting the release of new spectrum at 800-MHz and 2500-MHz. LTE launches using 1800-MHz are identified across a range of nations in the region including Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia. Vodafone will supplement this list in Greece, having received permission to use its 2G spectrum for 4G services from September 29, 2012.
The use of refarmed spectrum is not isolated to new LTE launches in the region. In Western Europe, a number of operators that have launched commercial LTE services with spectrum in the newly licensed 800-MHz or 2500-MHz bands have also moved to use conventional 2G spectrum holdings to augment their LTE service offerings, particularly for urban service deployments.
Germany’s T-Mobile and O2 Telefonica have adopted this approach with Vodafone Germany also planning to use spectrum in the band for augmented 4G service delivery. Sweden’s Tele2 and Telenor initially launched 4G services through their Net4Mobility joint venture using 2500-MHz spectrum. Net4Mobility has since augmented its deployment with the use of 900-MHz spectrum holdings. Similarly, post launch using 2500-MHz spectrum, TeliaSonera in Finland is also using 1800-MHz spectrum resources in the delivery of its 4G services. In Portugal, Optimus is using a combination 0f 800-, 1800- and 2500-MHz as it continues to roll-out its LTE service originally launched in March 2012.
Despite the growing use of GSM spectrum for the provision of LTE services across Europe, there remain contrasts between national regulatory approaches to spectrum reform, including refarming. All EC nations have now implemented the EC GSM Directive on a legal basis. However, on a practical level there is variance in national progress in spectrum harmonization and, where necessary, redistribution of spectrum in the 900- and 1800-MHz bands to deal with issues, including fragmented and uneven spectrum holdings between operators, and the expiry and renewal of existing licenses.
So too, only a handful of nations have freed spectrum for mobile communications services at 800-MHz, and many will not meet the EC’s mandate for such provision by January 1, 2013, with nations including Greece, Finland, Poland, Hungary and now, potentially, the UK falling into this category.
More progress has been made on the allocation of spectrum at 2500-MHz, a process which began in Europe in Sweden and Norway in 2007 and 2008.
Dianne Northfield is vice president of research at Tolaga Research