Europe wants operators to share their spectrum

Wireless spectrum is running out, and those who own it must play nicely with others who want it. At least, that’s according to the European Commission, which is hoping to avoid a spectrum crunch.

The bloc’s digital agenda commissioner on Monday published a number of ideas under which existing license holders would have to share some of their spectrum…

“Innovators could … apply for access,” according to Neelie Kroes’ communication (release). “Incumbent spectrum holders could use their resources more efficiently by sharing them on a contractual basis.”

She wants national communication regulators to draw up an inventory of “beneficial sharing opportunities” (BSOs) in spectrum bands.

The idea appears to center on encouraging license holders to sub-let their spectrum – a practise which operators in some, though not all, countries already undertake. Kroes is keen for a continent-wide approach, and says the idea is “based on the need to provide economic incentives for innovators and incumbents alike”.

“The growing demand for wireless connectivity is coming up against limits in the available radio spectrum to meet it,” Kroes says. “There is, for example, no vacant spectrum left and the cost of re-allocating spectrum to new uses is high, in particular if current users have to switch off.

“Through advances in technology, shared spectrum access makes additional resources available without compromising the incumbent license holder’s rights to use the frequencies. To maximise the benefits of such approaches to share spectrum, regulatory barriers need to be removed and incentives provided at EU level.”

In countries including the UK, dis-used spectrum used by switched-off analogue TV will be auctioned to mobile carriers for 4G use in 2013. But we have also seen national regulator Ofcom intervene to grant Everything Everywhere and Three spectrum usable for 4G early, in advance of the auction.

Kroes says the EC’s approach will differ from America’s – which is trying, separately, to free up unused spectrum “white” spaces between TV frequencies and other spectrum bands – in that it will take a holistic view of all possible bands.

The idea is, as yet, nascent – and could alarm operators who are preparing to shell out billions on 4G licenses they had assumed they would have all to themselves.

The goal could resemble the “functional separation” arrangement in land line telecommunications, in which large European telcos like BT had to split their infrastructure and consumer businesses – the former of which are now compelled to provide access to their lines to rivals on a wholesale basis.