The EU Commission has recently presented a proposal (see http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-207_en.htm) to coordinate the use of the 700 MHz band for mobile services. The Commission’s intentions are to  improve internet access for all Europeans and to help develop cross-border applications.

As part of the Commission’s  strategy for a Digital Single Market changes are proposed to  the use of the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band (470-790 MHz), which is currently mainly used for TV broadcasting.  The Commission intends to make  spectrum available for mobile services in the 700 MHz band (694-790 MHz) by 2020. The sub-700 MHz frequencies will remain allocated area  for audiovisual services. This UHF band should be capable of  providing high-quality internet to users, whatever the location.  This frequency is less susceptible to transmission problems arising from geographical location.

As with many of the Digital Single Market proposals, the “devil is in the detail”.  There are question marks over the Commission’s timescales.  The re-assignment of the 694 – 790 MHz spectrum is to occur by 30 June 2020.  There is not a good precedent for this. The Commission imposed a time requirement on the Member States to assign 800 MHz which it set at the beginning of 2013. The majority of the Member States didn’t meet this deadline. Poland, for example, only auctioned 4G spectrum at the end of 2015.

Member States will need to adopt plans for releasing the 700 MHz spectrum and conduct cross-border coordination agreements.

Member States will also need to devise spectrum assignment procedures and ensure that these procedures will not harm competition in their markets. There are obvious risks with “rushing” this at the national level.  There is only one chance to get it right – spectrum usage rights are usually granted for long periods, such as 15 – 20 – 25 year terms, and the spectrum in question is really valuable for wireless (mobile) broadband).

It might also be difficult to move the broadcasters out of this spectrum by mid-2020, particularly in Member States  where DTT is the main platform for television.

Who will bear the costs of the migration is also unclear. The proposals suggest  that broadcasters will incur at least some costs in overhauling or repurposing infrastructure/equipment. It is not clear who – if anyone – will compensate them for this.

More generally, this is the first spectrum-related proposal made by the Commission in the context of its DSM initiative. There are concerns in certain Member States about the Commission’s repeated attempts to take spectrum management powers away from them and to centralise this function in Brussels.