EC calls for 3G over 2G spectrum

European Commission grants mobile operators their wish by proposing the 'refarming' of the 2G spectrum for 3G services

3G services may soon be allowed on the radio spectrum currently being used for 2G communications, after the European Commission officially backed the scheme on Wednesday.

Two bands of spectrum — at 900MHz and 1800MHz respectively — were set aside in the 1980s for use by the emerging 2G/GSM mobile-phone market. However, since 3G/UMTS became a reality earlier this decade, many users have switched over to the new standard, which operates at the higher-frequency 2100MHz.

This development has reduced the demand for the lower frequencies, and some mobile operators have been arguing for some time that those spectrums should "refarmed" for 3G services. Those operators have pointed out that lower frequencies allow the signal to be transmitted over greater distances and have suggested that, because 3G infrastructure has been deployed mainly in urban areas where the maximum return on investment can be made, refarming would allow greater use of 3G "mobile internet" services in rural areas.

It now appears that the European Commission agrees with the principle of refarming. This week the European Commission announced proposals to repeal the GSM Directive of 1987, arguing that freeing up both the 900MHz and 1800MHz spectrums would increase the number and choice of services available, benefit more EU citizens and lower the costs of 3G deployment for operators by as much as 40 percent over five years.

"Radio spectrum is a crucial economic resource which must be properly managed across Europe to unlock the potential of our telecoms sector," said Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for information society and the media. "In the EU, we must, therefore, remove regulatory barriers and facilitate the deployment of mobile communications by allowing new technologies to share spectrum with existing ones. This proposal is a concrete step towards a more flexible, market-driven approach to spectrum management in Europe."

The reaction from the GSM Association (GSMA) — a trade body representing the major mobile operators, which recently renewed its call for refarming to be allowed in the 900MHz band — was positive. "Amongst our membership there is general consensus that there should be refarming," said the GSMA's David Pringle on Thursday. "A key concern had been that different spectrum bands are treated fairly and equally, as some operators have 900MHz only and some have 1800MHz only. So we're positive about [the EC's announcement]."

The GSMA reckons that the EC's move could bring 3G services to as many as 300 million EU citizens, compared with the 65 million that currently use such services. Pringle also defended the billions of pounds that operators paid for their original 3G licences at the start of the decade, arguing that "when the 3G licences were issued, the GSM spectrum was heavily congested and you couldn't have simply put 3G into that spectrum as well".

"The 2100MHz spectrum is still very necessary. The [higher] capacity is very useful in highly populated urban areas," added Pringle.

However, one issue remains unresolved in the refarming debate. O2 and Vodafone use 900MHz for their GSM services, while T-Mobile and Orange use 1800MHz. The smallest UK operator, 3, has no GSM spectrum at all. Because lower frequencies transmit further, the EC's proposals have the potential to give O2 and Vodafone the chance to have greater 3G coverage, at a lower cost, than their rivals. 3 stands to be the most disadvantaged network as it has no GSM spectrum to refarm.

Neither Orange, T-Mobile nor 3 had responded to a request for comment on the EC's proposals at the time of writing.

Even more space could become available for 3G services next year when Ofcom auctions off 192MHz of spectrum around the 2.6GHz frequency. However, that spectrum could also be used for alternative mobile broadband services, like mobile WiMax. Pending a formal green light from the European Commission, Reding's proposals on refarming should be in place by the end of this year.