Monday, June 05, 2006

Brussels shake-up looms for airwaves regime

By Sarah Laitner in Brussels and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in London
Published: June 4 2006 22:03 | Last updated: June 4 2006 22:03

eu telecomsMobile phone companies, TV groups and broadband providers may have to compete against rivals across Europe for access to prized airwaves under European Union plans to shake up the continent’s spectrum regime.

Viviane Reding, the EU media commissioner, wants to spur a pan-European market through which companies could buy and sell cross-border access to the finite resource, over which TV, radio, mobile telephone and broadband services are delivered.

Spectrum is usually managed by national authorities, and the suggestion that the resource be “traded” across borders could encounter stiff opposition from member states keen to retain control over their airwaves and lucrative spectrum auctions.

Executives were unconvinced the plan would succeed. Celso Azevedo, chief executive of Ondas Media, a Spanish group working to launch a pan-European satellite radio service, said: “I’d like to see something like this, but I’m pretty sceptical.”

Analysts focused on the legal and technical challenges, which one called “ambitious”. The chief executive of a UK media company added: “I don’t think there is a pan-European model for TV and radio.”

Ms Reding will outline her plan on June 28 as part of a sweeping review of the legal framework governing EU telecoms and communications. She believes reform could speed innovation by overcoming a fragmented approach in which bands of spectrum are reserved for one service only, such as TV or mobile telephones.

At present, equipment such as digital and police radios rarely work in more than one EU country because member states run the services on different bandwidths. Nascent technologies such as TV on mobile phones rarely work across borders.

Ms Reding’s move could require countries to harmonise the band they allocate for certain services so that technology worked in all member states. This could prove a boon to manufacturers, who might have to produce fewer varities of each product for the EU market.

Countries such as the UK have taken an increasingly liberal approach to spectrum, with Ofcom, the British communications regulator, planning new licences to allow more flexible use of the airwaves.

The plan comes as member states consider what to do with the analogue spectrum freed up by the switch-over from analogue to digital TV broadcasting, which is due by 2012. This “digital dividend” could prove highly lucrative for treasuries across Europe.

Mr Azevedo criticised Ofcom’s plan to auction the freed-up spectrum, saying it could allow other services to interfere with the band needed for satellite radio.

“If every country in Europe decides to do the same, I believe there will be no satellite radio in Europe,” he said.

Ms Reding’s plans could alter before she presents them. Changes to the EU airwaves regime would need the approval of the European parliament and the Union’s 25 member states.

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