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Wider choice for users through more flexible radio spectrum use: Frequently Asked Questions

European Commission - MEMO/07/68   20/02/2007

Other available languages: none


Brussels, 20 February 2007

Wider choice for users through more flexible radio spectrum use: Frequently Asked Questions

What is radio spectrum?

Radio technologies use electromagnetic waves to send information in free space. Many different radio applications can be used at the same time by employing waves of different “frequency” (the number of times an electromagnetic wave vibrates in a second, in “Hertz” units, Hz). This is like having many different “paths” to reach the same destination. As long as the “paths” are not exactly the “same”, signals do not affect each other (thereby avoiding “interference”). The radio spectrum is defined as all the waves operating at frequencies between 3 kHz and 300 GHz.

The radio spectrum is divided into "bands", i.e. ranges of frequencies. Different applications use different bands. Terrestrial TV is roughly between 400 and 800 MHz, mobile phones around 900, 1,800 and 2,000 MHz, cordless phones just below 1900 MHz, WiFi “hot-spots” at 2.4 or 5 GHz and satellite communications often at even higher frequencies.

The radio spectrum accommodates a growing number of applications (TV, mobiles, GPS, civil and military radars, earth observation and weather satellites, telemetry, radio astronomy, medical implants, hearing aids, sensors, “smart” tags...).

Why is spectrum “managed”?

Interference can happen if several applications are using similar frequency bands (i.e. if they are taking the same radio “path”). The effect is a loss of information transmitted. When radio use began, problems of interference were soon apparent. So, public authorities stepped in to regulate spectrum use. Traditional they did so by regulating in detail all the characteristics of radio emitters and licensed spectrum users. The key aim is to avoid interference, particularly for services of public interest.

Why does spectrum management need reform?

The traditional system of managing spectrum is under strain. The digital revolution has broken the boundaries between TV, telephony and the internet. The traditionally segmented and rigid approach to organising the use of frequencies has become inefficient, as new technologies are capable of delivering a mix of services and as technologies become interchangeable.

Consequently, as spectrum use has evolved, so traditional regulation has thrown up often unintended barriers to suppliers of innovative applications and services. With the rapid growth in society’s demand for wireless applications, traditional spectrum management approaches are increasingly leading to an inefficient use of spectrum and are artificially restricting innovation and competition. New and presumably better technologies are forced higher and higher up in the spectrum, leading to smaller coverage and therefore more expensive networks. Action is needed to improve efficiency and to promote innovation by providing better access conditions and greater flexibility for spectrum users. This will lead to more choice for consumers.

Which type of spectrum use does this Communication address?

This communication on rapid access to spectrum for wireless electronic communications services through more flexibility (see IP/07/205) does not cover all radio spectrum. It addresses those frequency bands used by networks that can provide electronic communications services, such as mobile services, broadcasting and wireless internet services. It focuses on bands which are subject to auctions or comparative bidding procedures, i.e. those bands where operators acquire the right to use spectrum individually. Flexibility through increasing licence-exempt bands will be addressed in a later communication.

Will flexibility result in fragmentation and interference?

The Commission sees the introduction of flexibility in spectrum use as a gradual process, which should give spectrum users more freedom to decide which technologies and services are deployed. This will allow industry to make timely commercial choices close to the market. Letting the market decide about the number of competing technologies and services offered in a specific frequency band is better than imposing a technology or a service by regulation. If applied in a sufficient amount of spectrum, flexibility brings the opportunity of rapid access which reduces scarcity of spectrum and increases competition, for the benefit of innovation, growth and jobs in Europe.

The new freedom to choose technologies and services has invoked fear that such an approach could lead to fragmentation. Experience in large markets, such as the US, has shown that when a flexible use model is the starting point, market mechanisms tend to consolidate and achieve a certain degree of harmonisation, since it is in industry's interest to achieve economies of scale and seamless services for the user. This freedom is also important since spectrum users must meet business plans and shareholder expectations by selecting the right technologies and services. Besides the strength of the market to find the right balance between flexibility and harmonisation, the risk of fragmentation is low, because the proposed gradual introduction will allow regulators as well as stakeholders to gain experience with the new approach.

Avoiding interference remains a key element of spectrum management, but the way it can be achieved has evolved due to technological progress. The traditional approach can and should be replaced by a more flexible one; technologically neutral conditions would be based on generic technical constraints (e.g. through power emission rules that clarify limits between neighbouring networks, so-called spectrum masks), instead of reserving spectrum for specific technologies or groups of technologies. The Commission will continue to coordinate and propose harmonised conditions that are aimed at avoiding interference and facilitating cross-border coordination. By taking such an approach, it will be possible not only to facilitate technical efficiency, but also economic efficiency in spectrum use.

Why is there an urgent need to act now?

Making authorisation conditions in Europe less restrictive so they can be applied consistently across the identified spectrum bands will take time. Discussions with Member States will take place between now and the implementation of the new EU Telecom rules (see IP/05/1199 and MEMO/05/345). However, several urgent cases need to be resolved now:

§ The use of the 900 MHz band is currently covered by the GSM Directive, which is now being called into question, as it reserves frequency bands exclusively for GSM, while the deployment of new services using 3rd generation mobile technologies is now technically feasible. Existing 2nd generation mobile operators want to follow market developments noting that equipment allowing UMTS (a 3G standard) to use the 900 and 1800 MHz bands will be on the market soon. A more flexible approach to use these frequencies is therefore needed as soon as possible.

§ Existing and new operators wishing to implement different wireless access technologies (e.g. UMTS and WiMAX) want to use the 2.6 GHz band (earmarked for availability in 2008), which is of prime interest for mobile communications and for wireless internet access. This band currently lacks a coordinated Community approach, which must be clear, proportionate and future proof.

§ The 470-862 MHz band currently is used for broadcasting. The use of this band may change: in particular as a result of the so-called "digital dividend" where spectrum is freed up by the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting (which uses less spectrum). This is of high interest for new services such as mobile TV as well as for extending the reach of all types of wireless electronic communication services into rural areas to bridge the digital divide.

What is the Commission’s role in spectrum management?

Spectrum is still managed nationally, but the Commission has a key role to play in supporting a coordinated pan-European approach. Reforms are being actively discussed in most Member States, and several different approaches are under consideration. By providing a structure for coordination and collaboration, the Commission can enable Europe to take a single, strategic and coherent path towards spectrum reform. To this end it is reviewing its current EU Telecom rules to propose an overall more coherent forward-looking approach to spectrum management (see IP/05/1199).

Various mass-market applications and social uses of radio can be good candidates for a single European approach (see for example IP/06/1808). The Radio Spectrum Decision and the current EU Telecoms rules require the Commission to promote harmonisation measures that strengthen the single market for agreed EU policies. The overall objective is to enable the rapid uptake of new applications by providing industry with the opportunity to target a large market, backed by a clear, legal framework (see IP/05/1199).

Further information:
European Commission website on Radio Spectrum Policy:
Communication “Rapid access to spectrum for wireless electronic communications services through more flexibility”, COM(2007)50
Communication “A forward-looking spectrum policy for the European Union – second annual report”, COM (2005) 411

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