The European Commission (Commission) unveiled its strategy for a more flexible spectrum policy on 20 February. In its Communication ‘Rapid access to spectrum for wireless electronic communications services through more flexibility’ (Communication) it states that the deployment of innovative services and technologies is increasingly hampered in the EU by the reservation of certain spectrum bands for narrowly defined services and by rigid licensing conditions that are seriously constraining spectrum use. The purpose of the Communication is to outline the steps needed to achieve a more flexible policy empowering the spectrum user to choose among a wider range of services and technologies.

The Stakes are high, and the path is long

The stakes for the telecoms, media and technology (TMT) sector are high. The Communication notes that an important and dynamic segment of the European TMT industry with a total turnover of between €240bn and €260bn is dependent on spectrum. Based on a study carried out in 2004, the Commission estimates a more flexible spectrum policy would bring a net gain to the industry of €8bn to €9bn per year.

For this to be achieved, the Commission believes ‘Europe must break out of the spectrum gridlock created by legacy rules and rights and instead aim for collective win-win solutions for all sectors’. Interests in the sector diverge quite strongly and change will happen only gradually. The EU commissioner for information society and media, Viviane Reding, emphasises in a press release accompanying the publication of the Communication that a more flexible spectrum policy ‘is a gradual process, which will not happen overnight.’

Paving the way for flexible spectrum management and tackling some urgent issues

The Communication emphasises that a completely new spectrum management approach is a central issue in the current review of the overall EU TMT regulatory framework, which is not expected to enter into force before 2010. Key discussions within the European institutions are taking place in Brussels on the new framework and the Commission has proposed introducing in the legislation the freedom to use spectrum to offer any electronic communications service (service neutrality) and to use any technology within a spectrum band (technology neutrality).

Although the new EU framework is the central focus point for the introduction of more flexible spectrum management, the Commission sets out a number of practical steps in the Communication that it believes are needed from now until 2010 to pave the way. In the Commission’s view, these steps will also tackle some urgent problems that have highlighted the need for an immediate increased flexibility in TMT policy.

Existing and new operators wishing to implement technologies such as Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) and Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) need to use the 2.6GHz band. This band will become available in 2008 and is of prime interest for mobile communications and for accessing the internet wirelessly. However, it lacks a co-ordinated Community approach, which in the Commission’s view must be clear, proportionate and ‘future-proof ’. Existing second generation mobile operators want to extend their use of the 900MHz band to third generation mobile technologies (second generation services are currently covered by the EU’s GSM Directive).

Existing and new operators are interested in the 470-862MHz band, which is currently used for broadcasting. The transition from analogue to digital broadcasting will free up spectrum (the digital dividend).

Key Steps

The Commission’s proposed steps are as follows.

First, the Annex to the Communication sets out a package of frequency bands (including the key GSM and UMTS bands) currently used by the broadcasting, mobile and information technology sectors that the Commission is to investigate with a view to an entire or partial implementation of flexibility, with the assistance of the Radio Spectrum Committee and the Communications Committee.

Second, the Commission and a number of competent EU committees will investigate the conditions attached to spectrum use rights within the package of spectrum bands mentioned above. The aim is to agree on a common set of licensing conditions that are as flexible as possible. The Commission would like to publish a Recommendation on related guidelines this year. 

These two steps cannot be achieved without the intervention of the EU member states and the Communication calls upon these to clarify existing authorisation conditions as a matter of urgency and to remove restrictive conditions wherever possible to facilitate flexibility.

Third, the Commission will use the current regulatory framework to investigate and propose further measures. It mentions two concrete points in this regard, namely the review of the current GSM Directive and a push for a common European approach to the 2.6GHz band (without being more concrete on what this push exactly means).

Fourth, the Commission mentions that standardisation organisations will be mandated to develop adequate harmonised standards for equipment operating in flexible bands to avoid interference.

Finally, the Commission calls on the EU TMT industry to co-operate to achieve a seamless service environment for the consumer. The Commission in particular mentions the need to develop open standards for wireless technologies to facilitate interoperability and seamless services. It considers that the market is best served by continuing to rely on industry-led voluntary standardisation initiatives rather than by Commission intervention, although it does not exclude such intervention.

Conclusion

This Communication is the first step in a process that should lead to a significant overhaul of Europe’s spectrum policy, a key issue for the further development of wireless markets, which number over 2 billion consumers worldwide today. The new EU regulatory framework should provide the regulatory basis for this new policy but the Communication sets out a number of preparatory and intermediate steps for the next few years as a run up to a complete overhaul by 2010. Some of the proposals remain vague and will be discussed further in Brussels in the next few months and years, and the EU TMT industry will wish to monitor these developments very closely. It is clear that the Commission sees a very significant role for the industry itself and calls upon the TMT sector to co-operate to help achieve these ends.