As new digital technology replaces the traditional analogue
Brussels backs telecoms against TVs in frequency
The top radio frequencies freed by technological updates should be devoted to new services, such as wireless Internet and high-definition mobile offers, rather than being allocated to extra broadcasting uses, the European Commission
Radio frequencies currently hold a quasi-monopoly of broadcasting services, including television and radio, which use almost the entire usable spectrum, except that reserved for public emergency services and military use.
As new digital technology replaces the traditional analogue, to meet the 2012 European deadline for the so-called 'digital switchover', the same services can be provided with less spectrum, opening up new opportunities for other operators.
The freed frequencies are what is called the 'digital dividend'. Brussels has long supported telecoms operators in their efforts to obtain a substantial part of the newly available resources, challenging the power of broadcasters, which in any case will get a share of the dividend for new digital terrestrial services (EurActiv 13/06/08).
"I urge national authorities to use the digital dividend in a pro-competitive way to open up the market for new operators and new services. Only this will ensure the digital dividend is used to bring wireless broadband to parts of the EU where high-speed Internet cannot be provided efficiently by other technologies," the commissioner added.
In order to allow telecoms operators to exploit the digital dividend, Brussels is proposing to allocate them the 790-862 MHz sub-band, which ranks among the most valuable freed frequencies, since it travels long distances and through buildings.
If telecoms operators were guaranteed use of the sub-band in a harmonised way across the EU, then the Commission believes that new consumer services could be developed with an estimated beneficial impact on the European economy of up to €44 billion by 2015, according to a report released by the EU executive.
However, not all member states agree with the idea of reserving, or even simply freeing up, the 790-862 MHz sub-band for electronic communications. Only Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK are backing moves in this direction. The majority of member states are undecided.
The opposition is led by powerful television and radio services, which want to re-seize the freed frequencies in order to offer new digital and interactive services. They are afraid of the competition posed by telecoms-supported mobile TV services, which could offer a valid alternative to terrestrial television. Moreover, technical conflicts could arise, impacting on the quality of the services offered.
The European Commission has no power to mandate member states on how to use their frequencies, but is pushing for the imposition of common "technical parameters", to be applied in the event that the freed spectrum is completely or partly left to broadcasters.
This could help secure future use of the resource by telecoms operators, and avoid technical hurdles which might make hamper the take-up of electronic services via spectrum.
However, before deciding on how to allocate the freed frequencies, member states have to act to make sure the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting takes place smoothly. The 2012 deadline seems out of reach for many countries, and thus there is a risk that the development of new services could be further delayed.