Europe defends terrestrial spectrum against mobile intrusion

The World Radiocommunication Conferences have concluded in Geneva without finally resolving the issue of reallocating spectrum freed up by analogue terrestrial switch off, the so-called digital dividend.

The conference is staged at irregular intervals of a few years, the last being in 2007 and the next scheduled for 2015. As the 2012 (WRC 12) event drew to a close last week, the European Broadcast Union (EBU) lobbied hard to prevent more of the spectrum in the 694Hz – 862Hz range liberated in the digital dividend from being reallocated to mobile services in its global spectral region shared with Africa and the Middle East, given their proximity across the Mediterranean Sea.

The EBU argued not just to preserve some spectrum for digital terrestrial services that are widely deployed and used in Europe, but also for a careful review of spectrum in the light of advances in technology as well as changing cultural and political objectives, before committing to an approach that would dictate the fate of both mobile and terrestrial services for years to come. The argument here is that through emerging strategies for sharing spectrum and utilizing it more efficiently, it will be possible to meet the conflicting needs of all countries in the region.

Unlike Europe, many countries in Africa and the Middle East have not deployed terrestrial TV services significantly, and want to devote as much spectrum as possible to mobile telephony, which will also deliver TV services in some cases. Cellular deployments are, in a few countries, more advanced than in Europe, with Kenya, for example, already using mobile phones widely as remote payment devices. It was not surprising, then, that during WRC 12, these countries exerted pressure on delegates to allocate the 700MHz band between 694MHz and 790MHz to mobile services.

This argument appears to have been carried, with the WRC announcing that use of the 790MHz-862MHz in Regions 1 and 3 would be given to mobile services. Region 1 comprises the whole of Europe plus the part of Russia in Asia, all of Africa, and the Middle East west of the Persian Gulf. It shares some borders with, and therefore often has the same allocations as, Region 3, comprising the rest of Asia along with Australasia. The other, region 2, is all the Americas, sharing no terrestrial borders with the rest.

The EBU indicated that this allocation will cause considerable problems in Europe, where the 700MHz band is widely used for terrestrial broadcasting, often with long-term licensing arrangements in place. Yet, WRC 12 went further by suggesting that at the 2015 conference, the possibility of additional spectrum allocations to mobile services will be considered. These will include International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) to facilitate the development of terrestrial mobile broadband applications in the frequency band 694MHz – 790MHz. This issue has been placed on the WRC 15 agenda.

Europe’s only hope of salvaging something from the wreckage of WRC 12 perhaps lies in its idea of conducting a thorough spectrum inventory. This has been proposed in the Radio Spectrum Policy Program (RSPP) just approved by the European Parliament. It is Europe's five-year policy program to strategically plan and harmonize use of spectrum for the benefit of its own internal market.

The RSPP proposals have aimed to strike a fair balance, allowing mobile operators to increase wireless data traffic, while member states, in cooperation with the EU Commission, must ensure sufficient spectrum availability for broadcasting services. EBU members will therefore be able to continue to deliver and develop new innovative services and applications for EU audiences on terrestrial platforms.

The question now is whether RSPP has been scuppered by the decisions taken at WRC-12.