Towards a competitive spectrum mix for Europe

On 18 June, GSMA Europe hosted a Mobile Meetings Series focusing on the challenges and opportunities of spectrum allocation and management in Europe, and the role played by the mobile industry therein. This blog provides an overview of the main issues raised during the discussion carried out under the Chatham House rule.

The development of the technologies that are starting to transform our economies, such as Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and Virtual Reality, are heavily reliant on the development of 5G. The quality and capacity of 5G require timely access to adequate levels of spectrum in low – (< 1 GHz), mid- (1-6 GHz) and high- (> 6 GHz) frequency bands across Europe. National differences and delays of spectrum allocation could seriously undermine the ability of 5G to deliver on its promises.  In this respect, the European Commission (EC) has recently adopted an Implementing Decision to harmonise radio spectrum in the 26 GHz band, as part of its 5G Action Plan. National governments however, continue to play a crucial role in shaping spectrum allocation and management, and in doing so, the way spectrum will be used for the next generation of mobile connectivity in the coming decades.

Across Europe, Member States are in the midst of awarding spectrum laying the crucial foundation for the development of future technologies. The design of these awards to a large extent determines whether spectrum will be optimally allocated, keeping fragmentation and sub-optimal usage to a minimum. During the MMS, participants discussed which lessons can be learnt from the spectrum auctions completed so far. They agreed that governments should determine policy goals and design spectrum awards matching these objectives. This process has become increasingly complex, as more decision-makers have taken interest in spectrum awards, wishing for policy goals varying from ensuring coverage and a fast roll-out, to boosting specific industries. Participants flagged that these conflicting opinions risk leading to design flaws, negatively impacting transparency and predictability for stakeholders involved in the spectrum awards.

Towards designed to maximise economic gains put the 5G ecosystem at risk, most participants agreed. The high costs of winning the spectrum allocations combined with demanding obligations imposed by Member States undermine the ability of successful participants to invest in an efficient roll-out and threaten the investment attractiveness of the mobile industry. According to some participants, the differences in national award procedures hold back the European market from achieving the consistency and scale needed to convince international investors that the European mobile industry will give a significant return on investment. The idea of a European ‘spectrum auction minimum design’ was introduced but not considered pragmatic considering the strong national interests. Other participants pointed out the opportunities for the mobile industry to increase the attractiveness for investments by lowering the value of spectrum on the supply side by enabling co-existence in existing spectrum, using unlicensed spectrum and other spectrum sharing approaches.

Participants agreed that no “one-size-fits-all” approach exists for spectrum allocation due to the varying market circumstances and needs. An allocation design which not only creates a level-playing field, but also mitigates against the risks of fragmentation and inefficient spectrum usage as much as possible, requires an intensive dialogue among all stakeholders. In this respect it was noted that the Peer Review Process1 as led by the Radio Spectrum Policy Group could be useful, but only when organized well in advance of the spectrum awards. As a sector, the European mobile industry could increase its efforts to inform, educate and advise governments on how the design impacts the investment capacity of market players.

General trends, such as the impact of the rapid development of technology on spectrum in Europe, were also discussed. This might lead to unused spectrum, as the technologies for which they are now reserved, will have become obsolete in the future. Some participants suggested that instead of reserving spectrum for specific verticals, governments could make a spectrum award conditional on providing a particular service. Participants also touched upon rising public concerns about exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF), which in some countries have led to protests against antennae. Most participants agreed that authorities should be as transparent as possible, for example by publishing EMF test results for antennae and cells. Participants around the table welcomed the idea of a general European briefing to be distributed by local authorities to inform citizens about EMF.

When it comes to 5G roll-out, participants generally agreed that Europe is on schedule. The spectrum decisions being taken now however, will have far-reaching consequences for the quality and capacity of 5G services and the ability of consumers to reap 5G’s full potential. With a strategic timeframe until 2020 as laid down in the European Commission’s 5G Action Plan fast approaching, participants agreed that governments and industry stakeholders should work more closely together to design and implement a future-proof spectrum foundation.

Increase its efforts to inform, educate and advise governments on how the design impacts the investment capacity of market players.

1Following Article 35 of the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC)