Questions and answers: radio frequencies

The 700 MHz frequency band consists of radio spectrum in the range 694-790 MHz. It is part of the wider ultra-high frequency (UHF) band, currently used throughout Europe for terrestrial broadcasting. The UHF band comprises the range 470-790 MHz and is used for the transmission of various digital terrestrial television (DTT) channels and for wireless microphones in all EU Member States. Traditionally, this band has been exclusively allocated to broadcasting in Europe and Africa, as well as in large parts of the rest of the world. TV channels delivered to citizens via the UHF band are in standard definition (SD) and in high definition (HD) formats, and are received on TV sets at home through rooftop or room antennas.

At the moment, the UHF band is used as a whole for DTT transmission. In the future, according to today’s proposal, it will be “divided” in two parts:

  • The upper part 694-790 MHz (700 MHz band) will be used for wireless broadband services;
  • The lower part 470-694 MHz (sub-700 MHz band) will be available in the first place for the distribution of audiovisual services (such as DTT), as well as for wireless audio equipment for programme making and special events (abbreviated as PMSE; this includes wireless microphones for stage performance and content production in a number of locations such as theatres or open air venues). Member States will also have the flexibility to use alternative technologies in the sub-700 MHz band limited to downlink-only transmission (i.e. from the network to receiving terminals such as TV sets or tablets) in order to ensure efficient spectrum use.

How can this help consumers?

Due to its technical qualities (wide territorial reach, good penetration of buildings and other obstacles), the 700 MHz band will help meet the increasing consumer demand for audiovisual content and other broadband services over wireless networks. Wireless traffic is estimated to increase nearly 8 times by 2020. With more spectrum for mobile broadband, inhabitants of rural areas will benefit from a wider broadband coverage, both at home and on the move. This will help bridge the digital divide in Europe and create a Digital Single Market. At the same time, citizens in urban areas will enjoy better indoor and outdoor coverage with a reliable and faster internet connection.

Which mobile technologies could be used in the 700 MHz band? Is this band going to support 5G, the next generation of communication networks?

Mobile operators using the 700 MHz band will be able to offer higher-speed and higher-quality broadband (i.e. without service interruption) to consumers and cover wider areas. It will enable Europe move ahead and provide mobile broadband speeds beyond 100 Mb/s and catch up with leading regions in 4G mobile broadband take-up (like South Korea or the USA).

As soon as specific 5G standards and associated technology and equipment are available (expected around 2020), mobile operators will be in a position to roll out 5G services. All EU-harmonised bands for wireless broadband (see Figure 1) are potentially suitable for supporting future 5G services. The total available spectrum in these bands (including the 700 MHz band) amounts to nearly 1100 MHz, placing the EU in a good position to lead in 5G. 

Figure 1: Assigned spectrum in harmonised EU bands per Member State

Figure 1

 What does this mean for Europe’s digital industry?

700 MHz frequencies are essential for 5G, which should become a reality around 2020. They will be ideal for connected cars and other new digital services which rely on very good coverage. This will also help the development of other innovative services like on-board entertainment, remote health care (i.e. medical and public health practice supported by mobile devices, such as mobile phones, patient monitoring devices and other wireless devices) or smart energy grids in the Internet of Things.

What does this mean for the European audiovisual sector?

The Commission’s proposal is a win-win solution which gives long-term regulatory certainty to broadcasters and avoids an unpredictable piecemeal approach to their future spectrum holdings.

The Commission’s proposal safeguards the development of the European audiovisual model. It secures a continued spectrum resource for the distribution of audiovisual services and wireless microphones. It means that broadcasters will continue to reach millions of citizens through digital terrestrial television (DTT).

At the same time, consumers are increasingly viewing content online and “on the move” in addition to on their home TVs. The proposal outlines a balanced and flexible long-term approach to the use of spectrum in the sub-700 MHz band which will enable the EU to innovate and adapt to developments in the audiovisual market and to take an international lead in this respect.

What are the next steps after this proposal?

The Commission proposal will have to be examined by the Parliament and Member States, under the co-decision procedure. After taking separate positions in regard to the proposal, the co-legislators will start negotiations to agree on a final text. The process may take between a few months and one year. We hope for a swift adoption as the 700 MHz proposal is essential for the success of the Digital Single Market. The Commission will adopt a related technical harmonisation decision for use of the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband before the end of these negotiations.

Will the Member States have enough time to prepare for the transition?

By 31 December 2017, Member States will conclude all necessary cross-border frequency coordination agreements within the European Union, thereby preparing the ground for the later use of the 700 MHz band without cross-border interferences.

These and other coherent steps (such as promoting the market adoption of advanced broadcasting technology) should be set out in national roadmaps prepared by mid-2017.

By 30 June 2020 at the latest, Member States shall allow the effective use of the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband under harmonised technical conditions.

Such a schedule means that Member States have enough time to prepare for the transition.

What will today’s proposal change for broadcasters?

By 2020, the 700 MHz band will be freed from digital terrestrial television (DTT) to provide wireless broadband services. The DTT channels, which are currently delivered in that band in most Member States, will have to be “moved” to the sub-700 MHz band and be “added” to the other DTT channels which already use that band.

To accommodate all these DTT channels in the sub-700 MHz band, broadcasters will have to deploy more spectrum-efficient compression and transmission technologies. This proposal contains sufficient lead time and establishes an overall regulatory framework so that this transition can be made smoothly. Making this transition will enhance the competitiveness of the audiovisual sector.

On-going technology upgrades in the DTT networks and TV sets will be particularly important for Member States where DTT is the most commonly used TV technology.

On the other hand, Member States which make little use of DTT in the sub-700 MHz band will be able to use alternative technologies that coexist with DTT and provide audiovisual and also other services (such as cloud data).

Following today’s proposal, the current users of spectrum in the 700 MHz band – broadcasters, broadcast network operators, users of wireless microphones and individual users – will have to make technological improvements.

The State can provide financial assistance under certain conditions. The Explanatory Memorandum gives explanations of the considerations relevant under State Aid rules to the award of compensation for migration costs or adaptations of rights of use of the spectrum.

Will consumers need to pay for this change?

Within the usual TV equipment lifecycle, many consumers are likely replace their domestic TV sets between now and 2020, the target date for wireless broadband use in the 700 MHz band throughout Europe. They will not face any additional costs as TV sets in the market today already support new video compression and transmission standards.

Consumers with old TV sets will need to adapt or replace equipment, by adding a set-top-box to receive new formats (this could cost around €40). In some cases, they may also need new antenna to continue to receive DTT services (this would cost around €100 per household).

It is up to Member States to decide whether and how to help consumers with these transition costs. When making such decisions, Member States must comply with the principle of technological neutrality, EU State Aid principles and the related case law of the EU Courts. Under these conditions, Member States’ measures to compensate for costs of changing consumer equipment are likely to be considered compatible with Union’s State Aid law.