With existing Microwave Multipoint Distribution System (“MMDS”) licences in the 2.6 GHz band due to expire in April 2016, ComReg’s consultation on the new spectrum award process can’t afford to be delayed.

The spectrum under review is particularly relevant / suited to address the increasing demand for wireless broadband services (“WBB”) in Ireland – but in line with the EC 2.6 GHz Decision, could also be used for other services such as TV services.  Key proposals from the Consultation proposals include:

  • Spectrum in the 2.6 GHz band should be released on a service and technology neutral basis, in a manner than enables the provision of WBB services. By this ComReg is referring to spectrum for services to enable high speed transmission of data over terrestrial - fixed and mobile platforms -  but not also over/via satellite.
  • In addition to spectrum in the 2.6 GHz band, ComReg’s preliminary views are to include the following additional bands: 700 MHz (UHF) band, 1.4 GHz, 2.3 GHz and 3.6 GHz bands.  In deciding which bands to include, ComReg is mindful of the need to put together a package that is sufficiently attractive in terms of both coverage and capacity, to be capable of facilitating new entry into the WBB market.
  • The 700 MHz band is the only sub-1 GHz band included in the current consultation process.  As such the 700 MHz band has good ‘coverage’ characteristics.  Other Member States such as the UK, France and Germany are all looking at possible releases of the 700 MHz band for mobile broadband services, in the near future. 

The 700 MHz band is currently licensed in Ireland for the provision of digital terrestrial television (“DTT”) and is also used on a temporary basis for programme making and special event (“PMSE”) licences.  Two DTT public service broadcasting (“PSB”) Multiples licences have been issued to State broadcaster, RTÉ – the licences are not due to expire until 2019.  Spectrum in the 700 MHz (UHF) band is already subject to separate consultation processes being conducted by both the Department for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (“DCENR”) and ComReg (Management and use of the UHF radio frequency band in Ireland (470 - 790 MHz) and (Response to Consultation 14/13 on the management and use of the UHF radio frequency band in Ireland).  

In ComReg’s separate consultation on the 700 MHz band, ComReg is looking at, inter alia, the likely costs and benefits (economic, social and cultural) of RTÉ and PMSE users migrating out of the 700 MHz band and into the remainder of the UHF band – if 700 MHz band were to be freed up for WBB services ahead of 2019.  

Notwithstanding that the 700 MHz band is currently in use, and separate consultation processes are underway, ComReg has explained that the reason for it considering and consulting upon the ‘principle’ of including the 700 MHz band in the proposed award process, is to avoid undue delays to the present consultation that could arise if the 700 MHz band is later considered suitable for inclusion.  ComReg has practical experience of this with the 800 MHz band being added in late on, to its previous consultation on liberalisation of spectrum in the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands – which culminated in the Multi Band Spectrum Award (“MBSA”) process in 2011/2012.   

  • Spectrum in other bands is not considered suitable by ComReg for inclusion in the current award process for a variety of reasons.  These include, for example, the following:
    1. The spectrum is not suitable for WBB services.  For example, spectrum in the frequency range 400 MHz – 6 GHz, Wideband Digital Mobile Data Services (“WDMDS”) - not identified in the RSPG Opinion as being suitable for WBB services but which has in the past been assigned by ComReg under a competitive award process (eg, 410-414 MHz paired with 420-424 MHz, and 872-876 MHz paired with 917-921 MHz) – are not being included in the current award process, but may be awarded in the future by means of a competitive award process;
    2. The spectrum is suitable for WBB services but is already licensed (eg, 10.5 GHz FWALA band, 26 GHz FWALA band and 26 GHz band); or
    3. There are timing issues.  For example, suitability for / designation for WBB use will only occur in the very long term (ie, beyond 2020). An example of this would be bands above 6 GHz that may be suitable for 5G technologies, but it is simply too early to decide.  Perhaps once the results of the UK regulator’s OFCOM’s 5G consultation launched on 16 January 2015 (with response period until 27 February 2015), ComReg may look at this again. 
  • In keeping with recent practice in the 2012 MBSA process, ComReg is in favour of an auction process (as opposed to administrative assignment). ComReg believes an auction process is the most likely option for ensuring an efficient and competitive outcome, with spectrum ending up in the hands of those operators who value it most.   At present ComReg is favouring a combinatorial clock auction (“CCA”) format – also used in the 2012 MBSA process.
  • Other safeguards used in the MBSA process are also likely to feature here, such as spectrum caps, minimum / reserve prices, payment of an up-front Spectrum Access Fee with ongoing annual Spectrum Usage Fees, and appropriate licence conditions (eg, minimum roll-out and coverage requirements, quality of service obligations etc).  One item that is however new, is the possibility of offering sub-national regional or local licences at least for the 3.6 GHz band, given that this spectrum is currently licensed to service providers on a local area basis.   
  • In terms of licence duration, ComReg’s preliminary view is to maintain its approach of granting finite licences, with a duration somewhere in the range of 15-20 years.  Assuming a licence commencement date of April 2016 (ie, after the current MMDS licences expire), this would mean the new licences would run until between 2031-2035. 
  • Although ComReg sees merit in the licences for the various spectrum bands in the award process terminating at the same time, ComReg is not minded to align their termination with that of the Liberalised Use Licences awarded under the MBSA process (ie, July 2030).  This makes senses, as otherwise operators could face losing most/all of their spectrum at the same time – essentially forcing them to shut up shop!

ComReg’s review is certainly timely, with the EU Commission launching a public consultation on 12 January 2015 into how to use Ultra High Frequency (UHF) spectrum most efficiently in the future.  Two options in particular, are being reviewed by the Commission – including whether the 700 MHz band (currently used in most Member States for terrestrial broadcasting) should be dedicated to WBB across Europe by 2020, with all remaining UHF spectrum below 700 MHz safeguarded for terrestrial broadcasters until 2030. 

Responses to ComReg’s consultation were due mid-November 2014 (see above, as well as accompanying economic consultants’ report prepared by DotEcon

Spectrum Award – 2.6 GHz band with possible inclusion of 700 MHz, 1.4, 2.3 and 3.6 GHz bandsComReg publishes first consultation on new spectrum award process; and ComReg grants extension to response period for ComReg14/101)

Taking into account the Christmas break, it could well be Spring 2015 before we see further developments on the new award process from ComReg.  In recent awards (notably, the MBSA process for liberalised use licences in the 800 MHz, 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands) there were a number of delays and setbacks before the process eventually got off the ground at the end of 2011.  Let’s hope that this time round, it’s a smoother run!