Where now for European spectrum auctions?

While last week's CTIA Wireless event was the place to announce what you might plan to do with the 700MHz spectrum you've just won--offer 4G services, if you're AT&T or Verizon Wireless, but what of Europe?

The U.K. is perhaps the nearest to what the U.S. operators have gone through, with Ofcom set to auction around 400MHz of prime spectrum, starting with the 1452-1492 MHz band (the so-called 'L-Band') at the end of April.

Last month Ofcom announced its decision to release the L-band on a technology and service neutral basis from the start (Were they influenced by Google's lobbying of the U.S. regulator for open access?). Regardless, the L-band has been identified as having a number of uses, including mobile multimedia services, satellite digital radio, and broadband wireless access or high-speed Internet on the move.

What remains unanswered today is how big a part politics will play, and if the regulator can be completely neutral. Officially, Ofcom has stated that it wants to get the most benefit from a finite resource, and any funds generated would simply be a by-product of that. Industry analysts have suggested there could be other motives behind this unprecedented move. Is this really a move that champions the user?

How the spectrum is sliced up is also worrying potential bidders. Dividing it into 5MHz units would work best for cell phone operators, leaving it split into 8MHz bundles is a more convenient size for TV broadcasters. One of those 8MHz bundles would be enough to launch up to 24 mobile TV channels, or nine new digital TV free-to-air channels.

If all the spectrum were used for a single purpose, it could support 360 mobile TV channels or 135 digital channels--the equivalent of tripling the size of today's free-to-air platform.

And it's this potential that will generate the interest and the bids from prospective parties--how it pans out will be interesting to watch. -Paul