25th Oct 2016

EU rules on 700 MHz: technical issue or power grab?

  • With the increasing popularity of mobile broadband services, there is a sense that more frequencies should be made available for those services. But who should coordinate that? (Photo: Nicolas Nova)

The European Commission is trying to convince EU countries that they should commit to some coordination in the assignment of a specific set of radio frequencies, after it failed to garner support for more broad, common rules.

While this week's proposal on the coordination of the 700 megahertz (MHz) band may sound very technical – and the details of the plan are – it deals in essence with the question of how much power 'Brussels' should have.

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  • Oettinger: "this is not about removing competences [powers] from member states" (Photo: European Commission)

The radio frequencies, or spectrum, are a finite resource. With the increasing popularity of mobile broadband services, there is a sense that more frequencies should be made available for those services.

The commission's plan, published on Tuesday (2 February), aims to free up space in the 694 MHz to 790 MHz range, by moving the digital television services that mostly occupy those frequencies now to a lower band (470-694 MHz, to be exact).

According to the digital commissioner, vice-president Andrus Ansip, the migration “is needed to cope with rising demand in Europe for audiovisual content and services over wireless networks, which is driven mainly by video consumption on the move”, he wrote in his blog.

The commission thinks that member states should agree to a 30 June 2020 deadline by which the move is done, so that the EU is ready for the deployment of 5G, the expected faster fifth generation of mobile networks.

It proposes that EU states adopt and publish their national plans for the distribution of the band – usually done through auction – by 30 June 2017.

This in itself is not too controversial.

But there are some worries that the proposal is only the beginning of the commission grabbing more power on the spectrum, which to many member states is a revenue source over which they want to retain complete control.

The commission knows this, judging by a speech given by digital commissioner Guenther Oettinger (Ansip's deputy) on Wednesday.

“I want to be absolutely clear however that this is not about removing competences [powers] from member states,” Oettinger said at an event in Brussels.

“Revenues from auctions should remain exclusively with them. It's about working together towards achieving common goals and addressing shared problems such as increased connectivity through mobile coverage and through more investments,” the German commissioner added.

But Ansip said in his blog post that the 700 MHz proposal is “the first step towards further and better coordination of spectrum” - something which member states previously opposed.

Already in 2013 did the European Commission try to create more EU coordination on spectrum-related issues through the Telecom Single Market Package.

The package, proposed under Ansip and Oettinger's predecessor Neelie Kroes, suggested that the commission should have the power “to harmonise spectrum availability, the timing of assignments and the duration of rights of use for spectrum”.

But when the package, which also included new rules on network neutrality and roaming surcharges, reached the negotiations phase with national governments and the European Parliament, it was clear that the former would not agree to the spectrum part.

A deal was reached just before the end of the Latvian presidency of the EU, but without a word on spectrum.

“The Telecom Single Market was more about regulatory rules governing spectrum in general,” a commission source told journalists at a technical briefing in Brussels.

“The main difference is that this is a much more targeted decision,” she said.

The contact added that this specific decision will be supported by the national governments.

“There is broad agreement amongst member states that agreeing on a common deadline to release bands can be beneficial,” she added.

And on content, there is not that much opposition to be expected, a senior diplomat from one of the member states told EUobserver.

“I do think there will be a lot of questions – we certainly have them – whether we need specific legislation for this. Why not have an implementing act on the basis of existing legislation?” he said.

Implementing acts are a mostly procedural decision-making tool of the commission, in which the member states and European Parliament have a smaller role. For this proposal, the commission needs both institutions to actively discuss and adopt it, and most likely will need to mediate between the two on changes each wants.

“Our concern is that with this proposal the commission is trying to create a precedent and that it's trying to grab some power,” the diplomat noted, adding that his country may seek some reassurance from the commission that this is not the case, before agreeing to the plan.

Austrian member of the European Parliament Michel Reimon, of the Greens group, told this website in a written response that he thinks "harmonisation is a process that will move forward at some point, it is only a matter of when, not if".

"The proposal is less overarching and by being targeted at 700Mhz gives a possible blueprint for a enhanced coordination in the future while also allowing different approaches to be discussed for other situations," said Reimon, who was involved in the negotiations on the Telecom Single Market package last year.

Does the member state diplomat fear that the commission is now trying to achieve its 2013 goals by breaking the original plan up and having it adopted in separate stages?

“Our own thoughts are not far away from that,” the diplomat said.

The commission has already announced in its digital single market strategy paper last year that it will present a plan “for an ambitious overhaul of the telecoms regulatory framework”, that will include creating a “consistent single market approach to spectrum policy and management”.

That plan will be presented before the end of the year.

EU and telecoms firms target 5G benefits

As connecting everyday items to the internet is set to become a normality, the EU Commission is trying to develop a 5G network to cope with the extra demands.

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