The European race for Wireless Spectrum

As the mobile telecommunications market gets more crowded every year, and the technologies for delivering mobile cellular services evolves, the wireless spectrum has become one of the most precious goods for the telecom carriers. The government agencies are making efforts for ensuring a fair competition and split of the wireless spectrum within each country and continents, via the public spectrum auctions and regulation mechanisms.

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When an operator plans a new technology deployment, like the most recent case with the 4G/LTE, the process must start by having the spectrum secured for operating. That is why it is so important to invest in the spectrum auctions on time. In Europe, we have seen cases where an operator takes huge competitive advantages by having wireless spectrum granted earlier than the competition, like the case of EE in the UK (here). UK regulator Ofcom approved the use of part of the 1800MHz band for LTE in August 2012, ahead of the proper auction carried later on February 2013, allowing them to claim being the first 4G operator in the UK and winning an important number of churner subscribers. We have also seen cases where a European operator is left behind in the LTE offer for not being able to use the available spectrum granted, like the case of Telefonica Movistar in Spain (here). Telefonica saw themselves forced to collaborate on a network infrastructure sharing with Yoigo on July 2013 for allowing a late 4G rollout in the near future, while their granted 800MHz band is liberated from the Terrestrial Digital Television (TDT) and they build their own LTE infrastructure.

The issue of the 800MHz wireless spectrum usage is quite important in Europe these days. As we know the available bands for LTE are in the ranges of 800, 1800, and 2600 MHz, but the lower the frequency of the spectrum the easier and cheaper to cover states and reach geographical areas, making the 800MHz band strategically important. In example most of the operators plan or have roll-out the 4G/LTE coverage for big population cities with the higher 1800 and 2600MHz bands, and use the 800MHz bands to ensure the rest of the geographical extensions are fully covered in the countries. That is mainly why the European Commission decided that every country in the European Union should have the 800MHz band liberated by January 2013, as stated by the Commission “Opening up the 800 MHz band is an essential for expanding use of popular wireless broadband services”. However, recent statements from the European Commission has indicated 17 out of the 28 European Union’ states have not been able to meet the January 2013 deadline (here), with some of them asking for postponements or derogations due to exceptional reasons like having the spectrum occupied with previously agreed usages for TV, etc. So far, the only EU countries with the 800MHz band liberated from different uses, and able to offer LTE services on it are Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, UK, Luxemburg, Croatia, and Ireland. A full table of the operators in Europe and the band used for 4G/LTE is shown below.

(List of LTE deployments per operator and country)

Apart from that, the European Commission also highlighted the poor LTE coverage in Europe compared with USA: “Three out of every four people living in the EU can’t access 4G/LTE mobile connections in their hometowns, and virtually no rural area has 4G. In the United States over 90% of people have 4G access” (here). This is said in response to the early victory claims from some operators with advanced 4G roll-outs, which according to the Commission are still far from really cover all of the geographical extensions as expected. It is simply a truth during the last years USA has advanced gigantic steps towards the mobile communications evolution, while Europe is struggling trying to catch up.

Looking ahead of the 4G/LTE spectrum issues, the small cells are ways to benefit from the spectrum shortage in the macro networks. A recent study (here) also from the European Commission reveals, “71% of all EU wireless data traffic in 2012 was delivered to smartphones and tablets using Wi-Fi, possibly rising to 78% by 2016”. The results far from shocking are totally expected, considering the low cost the small cells technologies and particularly the Wi-Fi represents to both the end user and to the operators for delivering this. The recommendations made by the Commission are at least encouraging “The study recommends:

  • to make spectrum from 5150 MHz to 5925 MHz available globally for Wi Fi;
  • to continue making the 2.6 GHz and the 3.5 GHz bands fully available for mobile use and to consult on future licensing options for 3.5 GHz and other potential new licensed mobile frequency bands; and
  • to reduce the administrative burden on the deployment of off-load services and networks in public locations.”

As it is a fact, the future of the telecoms is most likely a combination of macro networks and small cells. Transitioning those with seamless offload functionalities available now, and being evolved every day by the incumbent vendors.

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