Reforming radio spectrum management: no time to lose for the Digital Single Market

Source: A. (Andrus) Ansip i, published on Tuesday, April 25 2017.

Six months ago, the European Commission presented an ambitious plan to overhaul the EU telecoms sector, part of the wider strategy to build a Digital Single Market.

A key element is to reform how radio spectrum is managed, to improve the balance between frequency availability and our future needs and demands. Not just in one country - but to coordinate better around Europe so that everyone benefits.

It now appears that there is significant resistance and reluctance from several countries to what we have proposed on spectrum.

They worry about the new, more specific management principles proposed, including the length of licences and new institutional set-up, among other aspects.

I am surprised to see this opposition, given the repeated calls by EU leaders for action to create the right conditions for stimulating new business opportunities by better spectrum coordination.

I remain convinced that our proposal strikes the right balance if we want to put Europe in the driving seat for 5G. It promotes and stimulates the internal digital market while respecting national flexibilities for addressing particular circumstances.

I know that it is always difficult to please everyone.

Yes, our spectrum proposal can be improved during the decision-making process.

But I also find the depth of the negative reaction to be unjustified.

Spectrum, as I have often said, is a cornerstone of 5G, and therefore of the EU's new telecoms rules as well.

Without timely availability of spectrum in the right bandwidths - not only in Europe but also globally - we put Europe's connected digital future at risk.

With 5G, and dependent emerging sectors like the Internet of Things, we simply cannot afford to "wait and see" when it comes to reforming spectrum management. Other countries and regions are racing ahead.

5G networks are different and more demanding than what has gone before. They require significant new investment in spectrum, infrastructure and equipment.

We have heard clearly from many industry representatives that Europe cannot expect to lead in 5G deployment without first making major reforms in spectrum management. This is so that wide-scale investments, starting in cities and along transport routes, can generate an adequate return.

The longer licence durations we have proposed - a minimum of 25 years - reflect that thinking. They give long-term visibility and greater legal certainty to operators and investors, as well as more uniformity around EU countries. Not the piecemeal approach that Europe has today.

In addition, without a sufficiently long period, we simply would not see the investments that are needed in dense new wireless infrastructure. This is expensive and the business case is still evolving. It should be - and is - balanced by efficient spectrum use, based on the principle of "use it, or lose it".

To sum up: our main objective is to create an investment-friendly environment for the successful development of 5G in Europe.

This means better European coordination with binding rules on just a few key aspects, including maximum deadlines for assigning new bands, cross-border coordination to avoid harmful interference and a common approach to measuring network coverage objectives fixed in spectrum licences.

At no point do we propose anything that would delay an EU country that is 5G-ready before others. We just propose the final deadlines for all.

I want to reassure you that better coordination and efficiency does not mean that the process will be managed from Brussels.

In fact, what we want is for independent national regulators to play a role in national spectrum decisions that could affect how the market functions, and for them to advise each other via the independent body, BEREC.

There is also no question that EU countries have primary day-to-day responsibility for spectrum policy, and in particular for the revenues from auctions. These remain within the countries themselves.

There is a lot more I could say about this very complex area. But just one last point - and it again concerns 5G, only just around the corner.

Europe came very late to 4G, partly due to limited availability of suitable spectrum at sufficient scale, unattractive terms for acquiring such spectrum and investing in networks. We do not want to make the same mistake with 5G.

It is why we have set target dates so that by 2025, uninterrupted 5G should be available in all urban areas as well as major roads and railways.

This is not a power game between EU countries and the European Commission.

It is about the structure and environment that will best support investments in Europe for building infrastructure that we badly need. With spectrum, the status quo has to change if we are to build a functioning Digital Single Market.

Another blog soon.