The European Union—still smarting from falling behind the US and South Korea on deploying 4G tech after being the first to develop it—struck a preliminary political deal late on Wednesday to allow mobile operators across the bloc to benefit from the “coordinated release” of the 700 MHz spectrum band for 5G.
In May, EU ministers agreed—with the blessing of the telecoms council—that the band should be handed over to mobile broadband service providers by 2020 to allow them to more easily transition to the next generation 5G technology. Last month, the European Parliament’s industry, research, and energy committee also nodded heads in harmony with the plan.
Brussels’ officials said that the European Council and parliament were expected to “formally endorse” the deal in early 2017. It stipulates that mobile carriers should be assigned the 700 MHz band by the middle of 2020 across all EU member states. Delays will be accepted only where countries are wrangling with their EU neighbours or if they hit snags with reallocating broadcast spectrum.
At present, the ultra-high frequency band (range: 470-790 MHz) is used for Freeview television and wireless microphones in the UK and across the bloc. The EU wants the chunk of 700 MHz spectrum to be shifted over to wireless broadband.
The European Commission’s digital single market vice-president, Andrus Ansip, said the preliminary deal—which needs to be backed by member states and politicians before it can be law—said: “Better spectrum coordination is vital to provide higher quality Internet to all Europeans. It paves the way for 5G, the next generation of communication networks, and the Internet of Things. We made a first step today with a joint approach to use the 700 MHz band in the EU.”
UK communications watchdog Ofcom has already signalled that it would attempt to accelerate its own plan to make the spectrum available for mobile data by the end of 2021, by pushing to bring it in sooner. EU states have been told to “adopt and make public their national plans” for the release of the 700 MHz band by the end of June 2018.
In November, digital minister Matt Hancock told MPs: “We expect to auction mobile licences for the 700 MHz band in late 2018 or 2019,” with Ofcom overseeing the auction process. But the date stamp is significant: it’s likely that Britain will have withdrawn from the EU by then.