Nº 2 2015 > Special Report on the Digital Switchover

Digital switchover in Europe

Status of the 800 MHz and 700 MHz bands

Digital switchover in Europe

The planning of the digital switchover of television in Europe began as long ago as 1997, when the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) laid the foundations for the launch of digital terrestrial television. This resulted in a multilateral coordination agreement (referred to as the Chester‑97 agreement) between CEPT countries to introduce digital terrestrial television using the Digital Video Broadcasting — Terrestrial (DVB‑T) standard.

Certain countries in Europe were among the first in the world to implement digital terrestrial television — and to release digital dividend frequencies in the 800 MHz band. Many European countries are now looking to re-allocate further Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) spectrum from broadcasting to mobile use, and to make frequencies in the 700 MHz range available for mobile broadband, in addition to those already used in the 800 MHz band.

Digital broadcasting services were launched as early as 1998 in some European countries, such as the United Kingdom. However, since the Chester‑97 agreement did not provide a new frequency plan for digital terrestrial television, initial services were launched in spectrum formerly used for analogue television, and it was not until the ITU Regional Radiocommunication Conference in 2006 (RRC‑06) that a new digital frequency plan for terrestrial broadcasting was produced.

European regulators moved quickly after RRC‑06 to implement the new plan. Key to the coordination efforts within Europe (both in terms of switching off analogue television and releasing digital dividend frequencies) was the European Commission decision to harmonize the 800 MHz band, and the associated European Commission Recommendation to facilitate release of the digital dividend (Commission Decision of 6 May 2010 on harmonized technical conditions of use in the 790–862 MHz band in the European Union). The Recommendation urged European Union Member States to cease broadcasting analogue television signals by 1 January 2012, but a subsequent Decision of the European Parliament (243/2012/EU) set a 1 January 2013 deadline for European Union Member States to make the 800 MHz digital dividend spectrum available for electronic communications services. This deadline was met by ten Member States, plus Croatia, which joined the European Union on 1 July 2013 (see Figure 1).

Countries that did not meet the deadline invoked a derogation clause covering specific circumstances such as cross-border frequency coordination. The European Commission accepted 12 of these derogation requests, for periods of up to three years, on condition that continued use of the 800 MHz band for broadcasting or other purposes did not cause any problems for the development of wireless broadband in that band in neighbouring Member States where 800 MHz mobile broadband services were already in use.

Since 1 January 2013, the two countries that did not request derogation — Belgium and Estonia — as well as the two for which derogation requests were not granted — Slovenia and the Slovak Republic — have all assigned the 800 MHz band to mobile broadband. In addition, during 2013 and the first half of 2014, seven of those countries that were granted a derogation auctioned licences to use the 800 MHz band spectrum for mobile services, as shown in Figure 1.

Although not subject to the European Commission decision, countries such as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the Russian Federation have also conducted 800 MHz auctions, and that spectrum band is now in the hands of their respective mobile operators.

All of the European Union Member States that have completed the digital switchover have assigned their digital dividend spectrum through an auction. These auctions have been conducted either solely for the 800 MHz band or in conjunction with assignment or re-assignment of other bands for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT), which in Europe are typically the 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands (as well as the 3.4 GHz band in some countries). The status across Europe (CEPT and European Union countries) as regards assignment of the 800 MHz band for mobile use as at July 2014 is illustrated in Figure 1.

More recently, Hungary completed allocation of the band, after its 29 September tender. On 14 October 2014, Greece’s National Telecommunications and Post Commission (EETT) released results from its sale of frequencies in the 800 MHz (digital dividend) and 2600 MHz bands for fourth-generation (4G) mobile services. Cosmote, Vodafone and Wind Hellas acquired two paired 5 MHz blocks (2×10 MHz) in the 800 MHz band each, paying EUR 103 million, EUR 103.1 million and EUR 103.01 million respectively. Half of the 800 MHz spectrum was distributed in a preliminary stage at a fixed price of EUR 51.5 million per 2×5 MHz, with the remainder issued via a competitive second-round auction. The licences have a term of 15 years, effective from 28 February 2015.

In particular, Wind Hellas will use its new frequencies to support its plan to enter the 4G LTE segment against its two larger rivals, both of whom have well-established LTE operations. A statement from the company confirmed that the new spectrum will support the operator’s 4G roll-out. The company will incorporate this new spectrum into its network modernization and the current roll-out of LTE services. “This is a significant investment in critical spectrum that will allow us to meet the growing consumer demand for 4G mobile broadband and provide consumers the fastest data service,” the statement said.

In Poland, the original auction was planned for February 2014; however, this was cancelled as a technical glitch prevented operators from accessing auction documents. The Polish national regulatory authority, the Office of Electronic Communications (UKE), subsequently amended the auction approach in order to avoid monopolization of the market: for example, by modifying limits on the sharing of spectrum so that up to 30 MHz of spectrum holdings in the 800 MHz band can be shared, as well as removing restrictions on bidding based on operators’ current spectrum holdings in the 900 MHz band. Due to these changes, a new consultation process had to be launched.

Cyprus is still taking advantage of its derogation and the regulator has yet to make any announcements regarding the timeline for an 800 MHz allocation.

Bulgaria has notified the European Commission of its continued use of the 800 MHz band for public security and defence purposes, and it has therefore been given longer to complete digital switchover. There are provisional plans to assign the 800 MHz band to mobile in 2017.

Following completion of the first digital dividend auctions across much of the European Union, Member States are turning their attention towards the 700 MHz band (694–790 MHz). As for the 800 MHz band prior to digital switchover, this spectrum is currently occupied by digital terrestrial television services in most countries.

Finland has made particularly significant moves towards assigning the 700 MHz band, with the regulatory authority, FICORA, setting out its plans in January 2013 to release the 700 MHz band to mobile from 1 January 2017. The Finnish government has held discussions with its neighbour, the Russian Federation, over potential interference arising from this re-assignment in border areas between the two nations, and the Russian Federation is also considering re-allocating the 700 MHz band to mobile. The Russian Federation has had further discussions regarding such spectrum liberalization with the other members and observers of the Regional Commonwealth in the field of Communications (RCC), noting that it is considering a harmonized allocation of the spectrum band for mobile radio services.

The Swedish government has also issued a decision to reallocate the 700 MHz band for mobile use on 31 March 2017. In France, the principle of the reallocation has been announced and it is expected that an auction will occur this year in 2015. In Germany, the 700 MHz band is to be auctioned in conjunction with the 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 1.5 GHz spectrum.

The Polish regulator has launched a consultation inviting views from industry players on possible future uses of the 700 MHz band. Options under discussion are the full reallocation of the band, and sharing between existing broadcasters and mobile operators (subject to conditions such as geographical separation). In the United Kingdom, Ofcom has started a consultation on mobile data strategy and potential future spectrum releases, which includes consideration of the future use of the 700 MHz band. ComReg in Ireland is also conducting a consultation into the future of the UHF spectrum, with particular focus on the 700 MHz band and preparation for the change of allocation that Ireland anticipates will happen at the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2015 (WRC‑15).

At the 46th meeting of the CEPT Electronic Communications Committee Project Team 1, held in Luxembourg from 28 April to 2 May 2014, a provisional decision was made regarding the channelling arrangement to be adopted for the 700 MHz band in Europe. This involves a European harmonized approach to licensing the band using a 2×30 MHz channel arrangement (based on the “lower duplexer” of the 700 MHz band plan being implemented by a number of countries in Asia-Pacific, as shown in Figure 2), to allow Member States to take advantage of potential global economies of scale.

While the 800 MHz band has been largely assigned to mobile broadband across Europe and the 700 MHz band is likely to be ratified as a co-primary allocation between mobile and broadcasting at the upcoming WRC‑15, the differing requirements of European countries in terms of amounts of spectrum needed for digital terrestrial television and mobile broadband have created a potential risk of fragmentation of allocations in the remaining UHF spectrum (470–698 MHz) in Europe.

Accordingly, the Electronic Communications Committee has set up a task group with the remit of identifying scenarios for long-term development and harmonization of the 470–694 MHz UHF band. A draft report, published for public consultation in June 2014, sets out alternative scenarios for future use of the UHF band, ranging from continued primary use of the 470–698 MHz band for broadcasting services to use of the entire UHF band by future communications technology.

Views on the best scenario for Europe are mixed. Some favour European-wide repurposing the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband by 2020, whereas others suggest the 700 MHz band should be repurposed for mobile use on a country-by-country basis. The broadcasting community has stressed that the band cannot be repurposed before 2020 without serious disruption to digital television services. The report stops short of making a firm recommendation on the future harmonized use of the band, although it is expected that, following WRC‑15 and taking account of the decisions taken internationally at that time, European regulators will move to make further recommendations and decisions concerning longer-term use of UHF frequencies.

In September 2014, a report prepared by Pascal Lamy for the European Commission was published. Its proposed vision of the use of the UHF spectrum is a “2020–2025–2030” formula with the aim of enabling Europe to fulfill the Digital Agenda for Europe broadband targets in three steps, while giving broadcasting a clear path to invest and develop further. The report proposes that:

  • The 700 MHz band (694–790 MHz), currently used by terrestrial broadcasting networks and wireless microphones, should be dedicated to wireless broadband across Europe by 2020, giving sufficient lead time to ensure a transition path to enable the proposed change in use;
  • A review should be done by 2025 of UHF spectrum use to assess technology and market developments.
  • Regulatory security and stability for terrestrial broadcasters in the remaining UHF spectrum below 700 MHz should be safeguarded until 2030.

 

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