19 Oct 2010

Cellular Spectrum Regulation in Europe

Stephen Temple shares his ideas of how regulation for radio spectrum and mobile radio is holding Europe back from the having the best LTE mobile broadband networks in the world.

Everybody knows that "change" is the normal state of affairs in the world of technology. We have come to expect generations of mobile network technology to change every 7-10 years...having already passed through four such significant changes over the past 30-40 years (pre-cellular, 1st generation analogue cellular, 2nd generation digital e.g. GSM and now 3rd generation broadband).

There is a perception that regulatory models that are applied in regulated markets, are set in tablets of stone. A recent study I have carried out has produced the surprising result that mobile radio/spectrum regulatory models have changes as frequently as the mobile network technologies and roughly in step. We are now onto the 4th model (which I term the 3G regulatory model to maintain the naming convention we are all familiar with in mobile technology). Each of the models has lasted for 7-10 years and the current model happens to be around 10 years old if we take the 3G auctions as the start point. This alone might be a reason to consider whether the current 3G regulatory model is in need of adaptation and change.

Why this matters is that these regulatory models have a huge impact on the success or otherwise of new mobile radio infrastructure technologies.

The study reveals a second compelling reason for change and that is that the current radio spectrum/mobile radio regulatory model is crumbling already at the edges. It is getting in the way of Europe being at the leading edge of having the best mobile broadband networks in the world.

The study has looked back on the past 4 regulatory models as case studies: what were their principal characteristics, their good points and bad points.

The conclusion of the study is that a better regulatory model for spectrum/mobile radio in Europe could lead to a considerably better future for mobile radio...both for consumers and the industry.

We begin with a review of the four regulatory models:

Pre-cellular Model (e.g. BT System 3 and 4)

The characteristic features of the first regulatory model were the monopoly provision by a state owned enterprise. The outcome was of a service with limited coverage and capacity due to low capital investment and limited spectrum being given to the service. The mobile equipment was large, heavy, power hungry and expensive. This limited the number of customers that led, in turn, to high service/call charges that further choked-off demand. Politically it was viewed as an elitist service and as such not meriting addition scarce radio spectrum. When it came to trying to upgrade from a manual to a fully automatic dialling service the operator was forced to do this using existing radio channels that were already heavily used. This put in a considerable delay in rolling out the improved service. This is probably one of the most important lessons from this first model...if we want to roll out new better technology fast...clean spectrum needs to be made available in good time.

First Generation Model (in parallel with analogue cellular technology eg TACS, NMT etc)

A characteristic feature of the second model was the provision by regulators of "clean" radio spectrum in time to allow a new technology to be rolled out relatively quickly. The new technology was "cellular radio" that lifted the potential limits on network capacity. It was the first technology inflexion point.

An additional important feature of the model was the first experimentation by the UK government in mobile network competition alongside the rest of the EU still carrying forward a monopoly model. It made for a well-defined field trial of regulatory approaches and the results were clear for all to see and learn from as illustrated below.

Impact of network competition on the penetration of mobiles in Europe

Impact of network competition on the penetration of mobiles in the EU

A third feature of the regulatory model was the strong linkage between spectrum managers and the R&D community that created a mission objective of having clean spectrum coming on stream at the point that new technology was foreseen as being ready to be industrialised. This led to spectrum being reserved for a new "digital" technology. In parallel with this the EU set out on its "Single Market" journey and the reserved spectrum was also importantly linked to a "pan-European" service.

Second Generation Model (in parallel with GSM)

The four key characteristic features of the 2nd generation model were; - the harmonisation across the EU of technical standards, spectrum and broad regulatory models (including the transition to full "open" technical standards making).

  • the full engagement of governments with setting the broad objectives for the mobile network infrastructure in terms of technology (it was to be digital), coverage (it had to be pan-European) and it had to happen by an aggressive date (by 1991 and cemented in by a government sponsored GSM MOU).

  • mobile network competition and full international liberalisation of terminals.

The result of GSM was spectacular. It swept across Europe and the most of the rest of the world. It buried first generation networks and swept Telepoint and paging networks off the map. More importantly its economies of scale made the mobile phone affordable to the mass market - even in the world's poorest countries. As a direct result the mobile phone has touched more lives on the planet than any electronic development over the past quarter of a century.

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About the author

Stephen Temple (www.stephentemple.co.uk) has had a 25 year Civil Service career that embraced spectrum management, telecommunications policy/regulation, industrial policy and procurement. His achievements include the industrial strategy (GSM MOU) for the highly successful GSM mobile revolution, opening up the 1800 MHz bands for mobile radio, bringing digital terrestrial TV to the UK and was also involved in founding DVB and ETSI. In the private sector he was Director of Advanced Technologies at ntl and then MD of their Networks Division and later Director of Strategic Projects at Vodafone HQ. He was a member of the last Government's Steering Group for the Digital Britain Project and drafted the infrastructure section of the final report.

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