TV and mobile operators on collision course as EU reviews best use of UHF spectrum band

New advisory group given six months to report on the best and most efficient future use of UHF spectrum band (470-790 MHz) for TV and wireless broadband

TV and mobile operators on collision course as EU reviews best use of UHF spectrum band

A new advisory group has been given six months by EU digital commissioner Neelie Kroes (pictured) to make proposals to the European Commission on how to use the UHF spectrum band (470-790 MHz) most effectively in coming decades.

The group will be led by Pascal Lamy (a former chief of the World Trade Organisation and a former European Commissioner) and top executives from Europe's broadcasters, network operators, mobile companies and tech associations.

In the face of a rapid and massive growth in demand for spectrum – as consumers demand new broadcast and internet options – Kroes is asking for quick results: a final report will be delivered by July 2014.

Kroes said: “Europe needs to use spectrum more effectively if we want to benefit from the latest TV and internet developments. That's why we need a new consensus on how to use broadcast spectrum, and that’s why I made the coordination of broadband spectrum a central feature of our effort to build a telecoms single market.”

The wider UHF spectrum, including the 800MHz band, is mostly used for broadcasting, mobile broadband and wireless microphones. The broadband and broadcasting sectors are both keen to secure the future use of this highly desirable spectrum band, which is a key asset for deploying new digital services.

Not only does the UHF spectrum have a long range, but it is better at penetrating buildings than bands higher up the spectrum – these properties make it particularly attractive to mobile operators and terrestrial TV broadcasters.

The efficient use of this coveted spectrum by both sectors is an opportunity for the EU as a whole. Some member states are already considering allocating part of their 700MHz frequencies for wireless broadband, which would affect and be affected by terrestrial broadcasters in neighbouring countries.

Mobile phone operators are particularly keen to get more spectrum with the 700MHz band looking the next most likely to come up for auction, although this will mean taking it away from the incumbent digital terrestrial TV broadcasters in some countries, including the UK.

In the UK, digital terrestrial TV broadcasters have already been shunted off 800MHz, which was auctioned off to mobile and fixed phone operators in early 2013, and moved to the 700MHz band. If this band is to be auctioned off in the future, then the TV broadcasters will have to move again - mostly likely to the 600MHz band.

Emergency service organisations in Europe are also lobbying for some spectrum, preferably in the 700MHz band, to be allocated to them to provide access to broadband applications such as live video streaming. However, the UK Government has made it clear that it is opposed to any mandatory allocation of spectrum by the EU for any purposes.

Kroes believes a coherent view of how Europe is going to develop the terrestrial platforms used by both mobile and TV services is needed, in order to promote investments in services and infrastructure.

Pascal Lamy said: 'I expect these discussions to be quite challenging. Nobody will get everything they want, but I am confident that, based on an open discussion and a willingness to engage at the strategic level, we can deliver a coherent vision for Europe.”

The idea is that the advice of the high level group will help the Commission develop, in cooperation with the member states, a long-term strategic and regulatory policy on the future use of the entire UHF band (470-790 MHz), including possibilities for sharing parts of the band.

Kroes said: ‘The TV viewing habits of young people bear no resemblance to that of my generation. The rules need to catch-up in a way that delivers more and better television and more and better broadband. Current spectrum assignments won’t support consumer habits of the future – based on huge amounts of audiovisual consumption through broadband and IPTV.’

The Group has been asked to look at how Europe will access and use audiovisual content and data in the medium to long term and come up with options that respond to four separate challenges:

  • What will next generation (terrestrial) provision/reception of audiovisual content (including linear TV) look like?
  • How do we secure the public interest and consumer benefits while facilitating market transformation?
  • What are the strategic elements of spectrum use in the UHF band in light of the first challenge? What would the regulatory role of the EU be in coordinating developments?
  • What are the financial implications for a next-generation terrestrial platform for broadcasting and internet use?

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