EC calls on operators to share unlicensed spectrum more efficiently

The European Commission (EC) has called on mobile operators in the region to share radio spectrum more effectively. The authority said that national spectrum regulation does not efficiently utilise spectrum or allow licensees to make use of new technical possibilities, leaving mobile and broadband users at risk of poor service as demand for data continues to grow.

The EC is advocating a coordinated European approach to sharing spectrum, which will lead to greater mobile network capacity, cheaper wireless broadband, and new markets such as tradable secondary rights for a given spectrum allocation.

“Radio spectrum is economic oxygen, it is used by every single person and business,” said Neelie Kroes, vice president of the EC responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe.  “If we run out of spectrum then mobile networks and broadband won’t work. That is unacceptable, we must maximise this scarce resource by re-using it and creating a single market out of it. We need a single market for spectrum in order to regain global industrial leadership in mobile and data, to attract more R&D investments.”

According to Matthew Howett, who leads and manages Ovum‘s regulatory advisory service, the most plausible interpretation of the EC’s instructions is to encourage multiple operators to co-exist in the white space that exists between spectrum bands.

“I think it’s less talking about getting Vodafone and O2 to share spectrum at 2.1GHz, for example. It’s instead trying to get more than one user to use vacant bands or spectrum used by TV operators – it’s about licence exempt spectrum and white spaces that exist between spectrum bands,” he said.

Between the GSM spectrum bands awarded to operators, there are small slices of spectrum that are used to prevent interference when using different technologies and different bands.

“The idea is that you let operators use this space without having a licence,” said Howett. “It could be used for lower power devices because they don’t cause interference with what’s happening in the bands either side.”

A challenge that many national regulators may face is that the Commission is earmarking spectrum for mobile use that is being used by other parties, such as minicab firms, for example. Regulators in each market will need to make a decision whether there’s more value in the mobile operators using that spectrum or whether it is necessary for other parties.

However, while many operators across Europe have recently inked network sharing agreements, particularly for the LTE networks, Howett does not believe that the EC will direct operators towards sharing spectrum.

“When they are running a mobile network, operators value the opportunity to tweak the network depending on number of users and their usage patterns,” he explained. “They need to broadcast their own spectrum to do that. So I don’t think we’re going to see any immediate move towards spectrum sharing, the sharing will only really happen in those lower power bands, such as TV white space.”

The European Union is facing exponential growth in wireless data traffic, and the EC predicts that global mobile data traffic will increase 26 per cent annually by 2015. By then, there will be 7.1 billion phones, tablets and other mobile devices that can connect to the internet.

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