A key aspect of the EC’s proposal is to achieve an EU ‘coordinated transition” towards the release of the so-called second digital dividend - 700 MHz band, envisaged for mobile communications use on a primary basis, by 30 June 2020 at the latest. This requires all 28 EU member states to adopt and make public their national plans for network coverage and the release of the band by mid-2017 and conclude cross-border coordination agreements by the end of 2017.
In line with the Better Regulation strategy of the EC, an impact assessment (IA) was concluded before the proposal was put forward. The four options listed in the IA included:
1) No action at the EU level;
2) Coordinated designation and authorisation of the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband by 2020 and reservation of the sub-700 MHz frequency band for DTT and audio PMSE;
3) Coordinated designation and authorisation of the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband by 2020 and coordinated designation of the sub-700 MHz band for flexible use.
4) Coordinated designation and authorisation of the whole UHF broadcasting band for wireless broadband services by 2020.
The Commission supported Option 3, according to which member states will be able to administer flexible utilisation of the sub-700 MHz band for purposes other than terrestrial television broadcasting, yet those should be limited to a ‘downlink-only’ mode in order to avoid interference with digital terrestrial television (DTT) and Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE) services. According to the EC, the option will provide for an efficient use of the spectrum, depending on the individual needs of the member states. The users of spectrum for PSME, which operated on the so-called the ‘white spaces’ unoccupied by the broadcasters, is likely to become the most affected party by this ‘flexibility’ clause. They have been encouraged to consider the use of more spectrum-efficient technologies for their wireless services.
On the broadcasters’ front, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has been cautious about the effects from the deployment of wireless broadband services within the sub-700 MHz band due to insufficient technical studies to validate effective co-existence. In its submission to the public consultation of the Lamy Report on the future use of the UHF band (taken into consideration in the EC proposal), Digital UK (formed by the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Arqiva) did not concretely oppose the idea of downlink-only use for wireless broadband provision in the sub-700 MHz band, provided that it does not constrain the operations of DTT. Seemingly, this is in line with the ‘win-win’ idea for broadcasters and wireless broadband expressed in the Lamy report.
The EC’s proposal has aimed to maximize efficient use of the available spectrum for wider coverage and higher delivery speeds, including opportunities for Internet of Things (IoT), connected cars, remote health care, etc. In this respect, apart from mobile operators, various Wi-Fi service providing actors and their representatives (e.g. Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA); White Space Alliance (WSA)) appear to have key stakes in the sub-700 MHz band. In their submission to the consultation on the Lamy Report, the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) has referred to an EBU factsheet declaring that “71 % of all wireless data to mobile devices in the [EU] was delivered using Wi-Fi.”
In relation to this, arguably, the IEEE’s continuing work on Wi-Fi standards can have a key impact on the utilisation of the sub-700 MHz band. Standard development in the IEEE will involve designing standards that will help overcome the negative effects of congestion in densely populated areas and circumvent the inherent interference risk for the Wi-Fi technology which operates on a licence-exempt basis (Reed and Lansford, 2014). In relation to the TV white spaces, the IEEE has developed the IEEE 802.11af standard, dubbed as Super Wi-Fi (Reed and Lansford, 2014: 832, see also DSA and WSA’s positions on Lamy Report). In addition, the IEEE 802.22 Wi-FAR standard has promised cheap and improved access to Internet and other wireless services in rural and remote areas and has been backed by companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Thus, the increasing interest of major tech companies in the use of TV white space capacity for wireless broadband is likely to disclose standard development activism with a global effect.