Connectivity, radio spectrum and the Digital Single Market: preparing for the future

Source: A. (Andrus) Ansip i, published on Friday, December 2 2016.

Today, national EU ministers will discuss the Connectivity Package. Its main aim is to achieve high-quality connectivity everywhere in Europe - and to do it quickly.

The first step is to coordinate our resources better and more efficiently, and that applies to spectrum. It is the key to connectivity.

Radio waves are all around us, part of the natural environment. That much we all know.

But when you say 'spectrum', most people have little idea what you mean.

As a range of frequencies, radio spectrum is a natural resource. It could be seen as similar to water, minerals and natural gas. But it differs in the sense that it can be used over and over again. Like all natural resources, it should be managed wisely.

After all, spectrum is the essential raw material for wireless communications.

Radio waves, like the internet, do not recognise country borders.

Around EU countries today, the rules regarding spectrum use are complex and diverse.

This has led to a variety of approaches for allocating spectrum on national territories. It is far from ideal: the more divided spectrum is, the less efficient.

If neighbouring countries attribute spectrum differently, it can cause interference along borders. It can even make it more expensive to manufacture mobile devices because they have to adapt to the requirements of different bands.

Today's lack of country coordination on spectrum has led to uneven availability around the EU-28. It can mean vast swathes of unused spectrum - and, conversely, scarcity as well, depending on the band. For anyone wanting to launch new wireless services, particularly across the EU, this is a real headache. Neither is it ideal for consumers, who often face connectivity challenges and coverage problems.

We can no longer rely on a system that was set up at a time when connectivity needs were very different from those of today and tomorrow - and we can all see the rising demand for mobile devices like smartphones.

But this is only the start: demand for wireless broadband is expected to grow rapidly.

To me, it is clear that the ever-changing technology landscape and opportunities that it creates for new business and industry models make it urgent to change the philosophy of how spectrum is managed.

The Internet of Things, for example, requires a new generation of communication networks and infrastructure. And that is 5G.

While it will take a few more years before 5G becomes a widespread reality in Europe, it is definitely on the way. We have to be ready.

Earlier this year, the European Commission made a good start in tackling Europe's disparate and diverse spectrum landscape by proposing to align basic rules for allocating new spectrum within the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband services.

I welcome the progress made on this proposal by the European Parliament and EU countries that now allows us to start negotiations this year. It is a timely and important first step that we need to make as soon as possible - and certainly not later than 2020. We simply cannot afford not to be frontrunners in 5G.

But, as we look to the future with new telecoms and media markets, we should press further ahead to promote innovation with even more efficient and coordinated use of spectrum resources. It is one of the main objectives of the telecoms review that the European Commission presented in September.

I said that we have to be ready for 5G, which means being ahead of the game when it comes to rolling out networks.

It can only be achieved with a stable regulatory environment - also needed by investors in the next generation of wireless broadband networks - that allows the European market to develop in a broadly aligned way.

Firstly, this means predictability: a clear and aligned schedule for releasing spectrum across the EU; sufficiently long licences (of at least 25 years) during which companies that have bought these frequencies can invest in networks, develop and offer services; and clarity on when the licences will be reviewed.

It means full commitment by these companies to provide widespread coverage.

It means swift, efficient and transparent processes to assign spectrum for electronic communications, with clear rules that the assigned spectrum will not stay unused, by applying the 'use it or lose it' principle.

Just to be clear: better coordination and efficiency does not mean that the process will be managed from Brussels. There is no question that EU countries have primary responsibility for spectrum policy, and in particular for the revenues from auctions.

What we need is better coordination of spectrum for EU-wide deployment of 5G, and we set a target of at least one major city per EU country by 2020.

By 2025, uninterrupted 5G should be available in all urban areas as well as major roads and railways - and we should not stop there.

When 4G came along, Europe was somewhat slow in pushing ahead with it. We do not want the same to happen with 5G. There is no time to lose in getting ready for what we know is coming: coordinating spectrum is the key to achieving this goal.

And we need efficient spectrum to build an efficient Digital Single Market. Another blog soon.