Summary:

The EU already allows 2G spectrum to be reused for 3G and 4G services, but now member states will also have to allow 3G spectrum to be ‘refarmed’ in the same way. The effects will take years to manifest themselves, though.

cellular tower

The 4G spectrum situation in Europe just got a bit simpler and more complicated at the same time. According to the European Commission, spectrum currently set aside for 3G services will have to be opened up for LTE by mid-2014, across the union.

This is known as ‘refarming’ spectrum. Until today, the big example was the decision to allow 2G spectrum to be refarmed for both 3G and 4G. This is how EE managed to beat all the other UK operators to deploying 4G last week, while everyone else is still waiting for new spectrum to come up at auction next year – it already had tons of 1800MHz 2G spectrum, and was allowed to reuse it for LTE.

Now the same needs to be possible with spectrum around the 2GHz band that is, for now, only usable for UMTS/3G services. The Commission said on Monday that the move would free up an extra 120MHz for 4G, and that member states had to transpose the change into their national laws by 30 June 2014 at the latest.

How would that affect competitiveness? It would give the EU around 1000MHz of spectrum for 4G, or twice as much as that available to US carriers. It will also help the EU reach its broadband coverage goals, where everyone gets at least 30Mbps by 2020.

“This extra spectrum for 4G in Europe means we can better meet the changing and growing demand for broadband,” digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement. “I want to see member states acting swiftly to change existing licenses. We all win from faster wireless connections in Europe.”

The affected spectrum resides at 1920-1980MHz, paired with 2110-2170MHz. There is also some unpaired spectrum in the same region (at 1900-1920MHz and 2010-2025MHz) that is also set aside for 3G but is not being used by any operator in the EU – the Commission is considering opening that up to 4G too.

Not so fast

While Monday’s announcement will certainly lead to more 4G capacity, it is also likely to complicate matters for operators across Europe.

First off, 4G spectrum is no good if devices don’t use it for 4G. This can already be seen with handsets such as the iPhone 5, which will run LTE on 1800MHz but not on the other 4G bands that carriers have paid good money for – hence, in countries such as Germany, many operators do 4G but only one (Deutsche Telekom) can do it on the iPhone 5.

So this new option will have to be taken on board by manufacturers and operators alike. That will take time.

On the other hand, there should be plenty of time available for this to happen – not only will it take a couple of years for the reuse to become a reality, but no-one would be able to refarm their 3G spectrum for 4G until they’ve stopped using it for 3G. With voice over LTE still being worked out, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

There’s a small risk that most immediate effect of the decision will be felt in UMTS-toting countries, such as the UK, where 4G spectrum auctions are still to take place. Operators may calculate that they should be bidding less for new spectrum if they can reuse what they already own.

However, that’s unlikely to happen – refarming now would mean clearing 3G spectrum that is currently heavily used. It’s not an analogous situation to 2G, which is well on its way to the scrapheap due to massive uptake of 3G.

In other words, the Commission’s move will certainly have repercussions, but they’re unlikely to be felt for quite a few years yet.

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