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Spain acts on 5G TV interference

Telecommunication tower with 5G cellular network antenna

Spain has set out a series of proposals to ensure that 5G mobile services do not affect terrestrial TV reception and putting the onus on telecoms operators to keep viewers in the loop.

That’s all well and good, but it begs the question why the proposals are being published now, as operators race to bring 5G services to market. The regulator admits that the situation is “urgent” to avoid delays to 5G rollout, but surely this type of due diligence could have come sooner.

One can’t help but draw parallels with the situation in the US, where operators remain at loggerheads with the aviation industry over the likelihood – or otherwise – of 5G signals interfering with airline systems.

Admittedly, the repercussions of dodgy TV reception are much less serious than planes falling out of the sky, even if you are in the 89th minute of a particularly tightly-fought El Clásico, but the point is the same: why is regulatory action coming at the time of 5G rollout, rather than prior to, or around, the spectrum auction?

Spain has had TV signals on its radar for some time. Last spring, for example, local press reports revealed that the state and the telcos were testing 700 MHz frequencies for interference with digital terrestrial television (DTT) services, with a view to getting the job done before the auction of spectrum in that band. DTT services in Spain run at 470 MHz-694 MHz.

Clearly, there has been some foot-dragging. Which is also true of the spectrum allocation process. Spain auctioned 700 MHz frequencies in July, later than originally planned due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

That sale brought in just north of €1 billion, which is not a huge amount in the high-stakes world of spectrum auctions and only just exceeded the country’s reserve price for the airwaves in question. But that’s still three operators – fourth player MasMovil did not pick up spectrum – shelling out €1 billion for frequencies without really knowing whether there would be an interference issue or what their obligations in any such circumstance would be.

Regulatory body the CNMC this week published a report containing a number of proposals designed to mitigate the issue. Chief among these is an advertising campaign, funded by the telcos, to ensure that citizens are well-versed in the actions they should take should their TV signal be affected by the commissioning of a new 5G base station; the regulator requires the use of TV advertising at the very least, to achieve this.

“These information campaigns should be carried out through a broad initial campaign, followed by reinforcement campaigns, while the main part of switching on a base station is carried out,” the CNMC said.

It also set out its expectations for the time operators are allowed to take to resolve any issues, which for the most part is just a couple of days.

“The CNMC considers that the approval of the Draft Order is urgent, so that mobile operators can begin the deployment of 5G technology using the 700 MHz band, without affecting the existing reception conditions of the television broadcasting service that continues to be provided in the adjacent band,” the CNMC said.

Fair point. But surely the whole process would have been less urgent had the specifics been worked out sooner.

Noone’s suggesting it’s easy for governments and regulators to hammer out the finer details of spectrum auctions, with myriad stakeholders’ often conflicting wants and needs to take into consideration. But perhaps if they spent a little more time on the technicalities, rather than apparently focusing on maximising returns, we would end up with better outcomes for operators and the broader industry.

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