Spectrum: A Stepping-Stone for the Digital Economy

When in 1865 Scottish mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves which could propagate through free space – otherwise known as radio waves – he could never have imagined how one day these would be used to connect up his countrymen. Today, wireless technologies lie at the heart of our everyday lives – enabling everything from basic communication to life-saving medical implants, video games to weather forecasting. Indeed, our ability to productively harness these radio waves has generated billions of Euros in global economic value.

But spectrum is hard to manage. How to create a harmonized spectrum environment which supports innovation, fosters competition and creates regulatory stability will be the focus of discussions at the upcoming World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 (WRC-15) that begins this week in Geneva.

Over the course of the next three weeks, delegates will negotiate allocations for everything from global flight tracking to meteorology survey systems, and of course, mobile communications. This is a unique opportunity to set the right path for regulating radio frequencies in a way that will bring the most benefits.

As the European Commission highlighted in its Digital Single Market Strategy, spectrum is the “building block for broadband services”. While global harmonization is managed internationally, specific use is currently decided at a national level, but under varying conditions. There are no consistent EU-wide criteria for spectrum assignment. This leads to market inefficiencies, limits  options and hampers the realization of the Digital Single Market.

The Commission has promised to tackle this by proposing a “consistent single market approach to spectrum policy and management” in the course of next year. The EU has called for authorities to adopt technical harmonization across the EU, and for competition in the telecoms market to remain a key priority. And just last month, Commissioner for the Digital Economy Günther Oettinger highlighted  the need for spectrum coordination mechanisms and the quick, efficient assignment of spectrum bands to enable the roll-out of next-generation 5G technology by 2020.

Given our increasing reliance on wireless technologies, one critical issue is how to increase the efficiency of spectrum use. Dynamically sharing spectrum is one tool and TV white space technology (TVWS) is one such example. TVWS makes unlicensed use of the frequency bands usually reserved for television transmissions to provide broadband access where traditional methods are slow, costly or cumbersome.

This spectrum, located below 1 GHz, offers an optimum mixture of range and bandwidth, whether you’re connecting small Scottish businesses to the cloud, streaming sporting events from the remote Glentress forest or saving lives at sea off the UK coast. Usage of TVWS in Europe and around the world has shown how alternative technologies have the potential to enable a more open and competitive telecoms market as well as drive innovation, business opportunities and social inclusion for users. And such technologies are already allowed under the World Radio Regulations.

By supporting the unlicensed market entry of new technologies such as TVWS, policymakers can encourage more efficient management of frequency congestion and permit mobile operators themselves to offload data consumption onto other spectrum bands. Many already do this with the Wi-Fi bands. But more importantly, a lighter regulatory touch enabling more unlicensed use of spectrum will help encourage the kind of proactive experimentation and innovation which ultimately drives value through lower-cost, higher-quality and better services for European consumers.

It’s vital to support new technologies, late entrants and methods that will open up the market, such as TVWS and spectrum sharing. For instance, mandating some level of spectrum sharing without imposing restrictions on use is one surefire way to encourage greater competition in the market – so long as the principles underlying sharing agreements are fair to all parties.

Finally, it’s necessary for regulators to take a long-term approach to the management of spectrum. While increased spectrum sharing and unlicensed access to spectrum are important elements for creating a fairer, more competitive market, there is also a pressing need to make more licensed spectrum available for licensed use.

While several mobile operators have argued that additional spectrum isn’t needed yet and have resisted attempts to reform the spectrum release process to make it quicker and more effective, once new licensed spectrum is allocated to regulators for distribution, it can take up to ten years before operators can start providing services. But ten years from now, this outlook will bear unwelcome fruit, hampering the delivery of mobile services and ultimately damaging the growth of the digital economy.

Spectrum is the most significant stepping-stone for enabling every European to reach the right side of the digital divide – so the path ahead needs to be kept clear. It is the welfare of Europe’s current and future digital economy which policymakers and regulators should bear in mind, as they discuss how to reform spectrum management and ensure that any new rules negotiated at WRC-15 will enable more efficient and agile spectrum use.

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Paul Mitchell
General Manager, Technology Policy, Microsoft

Paul Mitchell is responsible for strategic technology policy initiatives in the areas of spectrum, internet governance, and broadband. He has championed Microsoft’s efforts to advance flexible spectrum regulations allowing for dynamic sharing, and developing innovative access networks leveraging television white spaces around the world. Prior to his current position Paul Mitchell held a variety of senior positions including General Manager, Interoperability and Standards, and General Manager of Policy and Standards with Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division. He joined Microsoft in 1991.