Mandelson “Bangs Heads” Over Mobile Broadband

MobilityRegulation

The EU has cleared the 900MHz spectrum for 3G use but now the UK must convince its operators to play along

The government has admitted to calling the heads of the UK’s five main mobile networks in for talks this week for what it describes as “constructive and valuable discussion” but which other reports have classified as a “banging heads together” session

In a statement released this week, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills said that Lord Mandelson and Minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms met with the mobile bosses on Tuesday in talks to discuss the development of digital infrastructure.

“Britain needs an active industrial policy in order to take advantage of opportunities for jobs and growth as we emerge from the downturn,” said Lord Mandelson. “A key component of Digital Britain is delivering a world-class telecommunications infrastructure to enable UK businesses to compete and thrive on a global scale. The UK’s mobile network operators have a pivotal role in making this a reality.”

However, while the government’s description of the events paint a picture of an amicable chat – albeit with one reference Mandelson looking “forward to seeing any remaining issues of detail being resolved within the next few days” – reports from the Guardian portray a situation more akin to crisis talks.

“Mandelson’s meeting with the chief executives of the five UK networks – O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone and 3 – is designed to “bang some heads together”, according to an insider,” the Guardian reported.

The government statement provided scant detail on what the talks were actually about beyond the broad-brush strokes of Digital Britain and a comment from Mandelson about the importance of wireless spectrum. “The wireless spectrum will play a key role in increasing digital participation, including access to broadband in rural areas,” said Mandelson.

According to Guardian, and other reports, the substance of the meeting was actually about the issue of how 900MHz spectrum could be more fairly divided amongst the main mobile providers and be used to provide broadband access to remote communities.

The EC is leading the charge when it comes to using the 900MHz band for broadband access but the UK faces a problem when it comes to allocating the spectrum as 02 and Vodafone were granted sole access to when the GSM standard was created for use with 2G networks. The government now wants the two providers to share the 900MHz spectrum with the other three but it appears there has been some resistance – which promulgated this week’s meeting.

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According to the government, the next step in the process is for the independent spectrum broker Kip Meek to present some proposals on how the spectrum allocation should work which Mandelson said he would be “considering with great interest”.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom published a report earlier this year on the 900MHz issue in which it pointed to the benefits of opening up the spectrum to 3G networks but appeared reluctant to instigate any “head banging”.

“Our policy is, in general, not to direct such changes however; rather it is to ensure that there are no regulatory barriers that could hinder such beneficial developments,” the regulator stated.” At the same time our role is not entirely passive either – where we foresee a risk that the market will fail to deliver the full benefits of spectrum use to UK consumers and citizens, for example because spectrum is concentrated in the hands of fewer operators than it might otherwise be, we may take steps to reduce or eliminate that risk (provided that such steps are justified and proportionate).”

In July, the European Council of Ministers been cleared the 900MHz spectrum for high-speed 3G broadband use.

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“The GSM Directive of 1987 reserved the use of part of the 900MHz spectrum band to GSM for mobile phones. The directive has now been updated to allow the same spectrum to be used for mobile broadband and internet.”The GSM standard has been a success story for Europe, where it was born. By updating the GSM Directive, the EU has paved the way for a new generation of services and technologies where Europe can be a world leader,” said EU telecoms commissioner Viviane Reding.