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15th Apr 2024

Commission tussles with member states over radio frequencies

  • Spectrum, although invisible to the naked eye, is a finite resource that is becoming increasingly rare. (Photo: csete)

The European Commission is keen to get more powers over management of radio frequencies, but member states are baulking at given up any control over the valuable resource.

Around 63.5 percent of organisations that participated in a commission public consultation, published Wednesday (10 June) said they are in favour of a stronger role for the EU in a reform of the 700 Megahertz band, which the Commission believes will be important for digital innovation.

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  • Former transport commissioner Siim Kallas in a driver-less car in Brussels. Driver-less cars need spectrum to communicate with one another. (Photo: European Commission)

For the past years, the EU has been trying to increase its influence in the management of radio spectrum – the range of frequencies of electromagnetic energy used for communication – but so far has not managed to convince its member states.

Spectrum, although invisible to the naked eye, is a finite resource just like gold or oil. And just like those physical resources, it's becoming rare, which means strict management is required.

Spectrum is used by mobile phones, (tablet) computers that operate on WiFi, but is also seen by some as a necessary feature for driverless cars, which will have to communicate with other cars on the road.

As the use of wireless devices increases, so does the demand for spectrum.

Digital commissioner Andrus Ansip in March called spectrum “oxygen for the internet” and “the basis for a digitally enabled society”.

National governments control the spectrum in their territory, and usually auction frequencies.

But the commission says this leads to a fragmented landscape. In 2013, it suggested it should have the power “to harmonise spectrum availability, the timing of assignments and the duration of rights of use for spectrum”. It also said that revenues from spectrum auctions would continue to flow to national coffers - but governements remain sceptical.

Valuable resource

"The member states said: this is a valuable resource. Surely you guys are not trying to steal our spectrum, are you?", a diplomatic EU source told this website.

National governments are currently negotiating the digital legislative package which includes the spectrum proposal.

But according to sources from Latvia, which negotiates on behalf of governments, spectrum is off the table.

Talks are now exclusively focused on the future of roaming surcharges and the definition of network neutrality, two topics which have proven difficult enough to reach agreement on.

On Friday (12 June), telecommunication ministers will meet in Luxembourg and are expected to “give an additional impetus” to the stalled talks.

But according to Ansip, “spectrum is still on our agenda” and a digital single market strategy paper, published in May, made this clear too.

The paper promised “specific proposals” related to the “coordinated release of the 700 MHz band”, and officially has not given up on its 2013 proposal.

But the diplomatic EU source said the commission's plan included “at the end of the day, a veto right for the commission on decisions regarding spectrum. Member states weren't ready for that. My belief is they are still not ready for that.”

“I think member states are open to the idea of some form of cooperation. I can see that happening”, said the diplomat.

“But the sort of top-down approach with ultimate decision power lying with the commission... Unless I misread the mood very much, it's not going to happen.”

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