Monday, June 01, 2009

Who manages the spectrum?

Spectrum is again dominating the headlines but this time it is the regulators themselves who are in the news. As a child, I was always told that children should be seen but not heard - and I can't help thinking regulators should be the same. Their impact should be seen, but they should never be the headline makers themselves.

In a week when Europe goes to the polls to choose who will the lucky passengers to board the EU gravy train, sorry, I mean be elected to represent us in the bastion of democracy and freedom that is the EU, it seems only right to have a look at the role the European Commission has to play in the great spectrum debate. In particular, where does their role begin and end?

The regulatory landscape used to be quite simple. The ITU would be responsible for the global management of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, while on a national level each country's regulator would be responsible to managing spectrum usage. But things have got a bit more confused now that the EU has waded in and positioned itself as a supraregulator.

The issue has come to a head with the decision of the EU to award Inmarsat Ventures and Solaris Mobile enough radio spectrum to run trans-Europe satellite data networks, effectively forcing the hand of national regulator such as Ofcom who in theory still have the final say over how much each operator will have to run their network down to the UK's street level.

According to The Register, the spectrum concerned, two blocks around 2GHz, has been allocated to satellite data services by every country in Europe. The EU has been deciding, by beauty contest, who would offer the best connectivity to the remotest parts of the EU, and it's come down to Inmarsat and Solaris, but they'll still have to do regional deals with the regulators in each country, with Ofcom presenting one of the more serious obstacles.

But does the EU actually have the legal authority to make trans-national spectrum awards? And what will happen to the companies not awarded the right to operate a satellite service in the S-band spectrum? Well, they'll fight the decision in the courts, claiming the the European Commission does not have cross-border jurisdiction over spectrum. According to ICO Global Communications, the US satellite operator and one of the losers of the EU's beauty parade, only the ITU has the authority to allocate and manage spectrum and orbit resources on an international basis.

However, LTE spectrum auctions start to finally take place this year, you can see the EU wanting to poke its nose in more and more. Keen to replicate the success of GSM, which provided a consistent pan-European cellular coverage and enabled easy roaming between states, you can see the EU trying to influence spectrum auctions so that there is a similar pan-European mobile broadband coverage.

One route seems to be to simply open up the existing GSM spectrum for use by UMTS-based systems. Back in April, the EU amended the GSM Directive to open it up for HSPA deployment (see my earlier blog on this) in a policy known as spectrum refarming. National regulators are following suit with Swiss regulator ComCom announcing that it is enabling all three licensees to use their existing 900MHz frequency also for UMTS applications (although obviously they're not in the EU!).

So, taken together, we can arguably see that not only is the 900MHz spectrum being lined up for mobile broadband, but also that the European Commission is prepared to be increasingly activist in issues of EU spectrum and so may even go as far as mandating it.

Where does this leave the ITU? Well, I had the privilege of meeting the ITU a couple of month's ago and I must admit I left feeling a little underwhelmed as to whether they actually have any clear vision of what they are doing. It seems as if they are content to leave regional spectrum issues to the appropriate regional governmental authorities and instead focus on the more worthy issues of communications poverty in disconnected parts of the world.

The way seems to be clear for the EU to take a lead on European spectrum issues - pending, of course, the legal challenge mounted by ICO.

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