In a statement issued yesterday, the European Commission (EC) announced that it has ‘reluctantly’ accepted the reasons given by nine out of 14 European Union (EU) member countries which requested to postpone the use of the 800MHz ‘digital dividend’ frequency band for wireless broadband services, having missed the 1 January 2013 deadline they originally agreed to. Whilst twelve of 28 EU countries have already issued 800MHz mobile broadband licences for services including 4G LTE (on the basis of the technical usage conditions specified in the 2010 EC Decision to harmonise the 800MHz band), 16 are yet to do so‡. Due to reasons it deemed ‘exceptional’, the Commission has agreed to authorise postponements to the previously agreed deadlines (referred to as granting ‘derogations’) for nine countries: Spain‡, Cyprus, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Austria, Poland, Romania and Finland; it refused derogations for Slovakia and Slovenia where it judged delays were due to ‘the organisation of the authorisation process and not to exceptional circumstances preventing the availability of the band.’ Decisions on Greece, Latvia and the Czech Republic have not been issued yet as the EC says these cases require ‘additional evaluation’, while Belgium and Estonia did not request derogations despite missing the January 2013 deadline. In Estonia’s case, TeleGeography notes that commercial 800MHz LTE mobile services have since been launched following the award of frequencies via a beauty contest process in May, while Belgium has tentatively scheduled its digital dividend auction for November. Bulgaria represents a special case as it has notified the EC of the continued use of the 800MHz band for public security and defence purposes.
In assessing each derogation request, the EC considered whether there were exceptional difficulties in immediately freeing the 800MHz frequencies from broadcasting services via the transition from analogue to digital television, or cross-border frequency coordination problems (in particular with non-EU country borders). Member states are granted derogations on the condition that their temporary continued use of the 800MHz band for broadcasting or other purposes does not hinder the development of wireless broadband in that band in neighbouring member states.
The EC declared that the delays by the member states ‘provided further evidence of why radio spectrum needs to be assigned with greater co-ordination across the EU’. EC Vice President Neelie Kroes said: ‘We have agreed to temporary and limited 800MHz derogations for nine countries. This is a pragmatic and final concession. Every delay in releasing spectrum hurts our economy and frustrates citizens. That is why spectrum reform will be a centrepiece of the Commission’s September proposal for a telecoms single market.’ Potential penalties for the countries refused EC authorisation to postpone auctions (or failing to seek permission) were not mentioned in yesterday’s announcement.
Of the 28 EU member countries, the twelve which have so far enabled access to the 800MHz band for commercial mobile broadband services are: Denmark, Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, United Kingdom, Croatia (which all met the official deadline) and Estonia (which did not request EC approval for its late launch).
Lithuania (having been granted legal derogation by the EC) is poised to be the 13th on the list, with an auction for digital dividend spectrum licences scheduled for 8 August 2013, according to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database.
Seven additional EU countries are expected to issue 800MHz mobile broadband frequencies between that date and the end of 2013, including four granted derogation (Spain‡, Austria, Finland and Hungary) plus Czech Republic (‘requiring additional evaluation’ by the EC), Slovakia (refused derogation) and Belgium (which neither requested nor received derogation). In addition, Estonia may issue further licences in the band during this period.
A further five members have scheduled 800MHz licensing in 2014: Romania, Poland and Malta (all three granted derogation), Greece (additional evaluation) and Slovenia (derogation refused). Of this group, both Poland and Greece are special cases where military use of part of the band has been notified as an obstacle in the process.
Cyprus (granted derogation) and Latvia (additional evaluation) have delayed digital dividend broadband licensing until the second half of 2015.
The 28th EU country scheduled to launch 800MHz mobile broadband is Bulgaria, which has roughly pencilled in licensing for 2017; there are special circumstances in Bulgaria’s case as it has notified the EC of continued use of the band for public security and defence purposes.
The EC’s latest individual rulings on each country are available at:
‡Spain has already awarded 800MHz mobile licences, but under the terms of the country’s multi-band 4G auction process in 2011, the 800MHz spectrum portion does not become valid until the beginning of 2014, once the switchover from analogue to all-digital TV broadcasting in Spain has been fully completed, according to GlobalComms.