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Europe Waits for 4G Spectrum

Representatives from European regulators met today to hash out the details on how to allocate future 4G spectrum that many operators want for Long-Term Evolution (LTE) deployments.

The spectrum on the agenda at the meeting in Paris is the so-called "digital dividend" in the 790 MHz to 862 MHz range, which is the bit of spectrum that will be freed up when broadcasters switch from analog to digital TV systems and will be made available to mobile operators.

This frequency band is the European equivalent of the 700 MHz spectrum that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auctioned for $19.5 billion early this year. But unlike operators in the U.S. that already have their licenses, European operators will have to wait until possibly 2011 at the earliest to get their hands on this prime airwave real estate because the frequency band plan is not yet determined and the politics involved with removing broadcasters from the spectrum could be complicated. (See AT&T & Verizon to Use 700 MHz for 4G , Verizon & AT&T Win 700 MHz Sweeps, UMTS Forum Wants Spectrum, Next-Gen Spectrum Crunch, and GSMA Applauds WRC.)

The exception here is the U.K., which has a different frequency band for its digital dividend spectrum and plans to hold an auction next year. (See Ofcom to Auction Spectrum.)

The work on that frequency band plan for the European digital dividend spectrum starts at today's meeting of the project team responsible for IMT technology issues at the CEPT (European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations) in Paris.

According to an industry source, who asked not to be named, the CEPT working group will likely recommend two band plan options: one for frequency division duplex (FDD), which uses different frequencies to transmit and receive signals, and the other for time division duplex (TDD), which uses one channel and timed transmissions to send and receive. Cellular operators have traditionally favored FDD systems.

For the FDD plan, the spectrum is likely to be divvied up into two 30-MHz blocks with a 12-MHz gap in the middle, according to Unstrung's source.

The TDD plan is not formulated yet because there is some debate about whether the channel widths should be 5 MHz or 8 MHz.

Even though these are early plans, and not scheduled to be finalized until the middle of next year, it appears that there is little support for a band plan that mixes both TDD and FDD together simply because of the limited 72 MHz that's available in this band.

"All members of the [UMTS] Forum are against the mix of TDD and FDD," says Jean-Paul Rissen, chair of the manufacturers group at the UMTS Forum .

The digital dividend spectrum, like the 700 MHz spectrum in the U.S., is valuable because it has good signal propagation for better coverage and getting inside buildings. Ideally for LTE, operators in Europe will want a blend of 2.6 GHz spectrum (which has only been auctioned in Norway and Sweden so far) in urban areas for high capacity and the digital dividend spectrum for coverage in rural areas. (See Sweden Awards 4G Spectrum and Craig Goes to Norway.)

"Access to sub 1 GHz spectrum is critical for the long-term success of mobile broadband because it allows operators to provide coverage at significantly lower cost," says Gabriel Brown, senior analyst at Heavy Reading. "Operators with 850 MHz, such as Verizon Wireless and Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS), have been able to build out extensive 3G coverage much faster than competitors in the higher bands. Europe is hamstrung only being able to offer 3G at 2.1 GHz, and the sooner refarming of the 900 MHz band is allowed, the better."

Indeed, with "refarmed" 900 MHz -- that is, opened up to other technologies than just GSM -- some operators are considering using this spectrum for LTE in addition to the digital dividend spectrum, according to Unstrung's source. (See Down on the (Re)Farm.)

While it might seem slow -- given the first digital dividend auctions are likely to be in 2011 -- the work at the CEPT is important because it should help ensure a common approach to allocating this spectrum across Europe, which is critical for keeping operator costs down.

"It's important to have a harmonized band plan across EU," says Roberto Ercole, director of spectrum regulation at the GSM Association (GSMA) . "Also, we need to keep the cost of terminals down. If you go country specific with your band plan, then you increase the cost of terminals quite significantly."

Even though the 2.6 GHz and digital dividend spectrum auctions are slow in coming in Europe, some argue that operators are not in the same rush to deploy LTE like operators in other parts of the world like the U.S., for example. (See UK Operators Brace for Spectrum Struggle and Ofcom Delays 2.6GHz Auction.)

"There is no real urgency to deploy LTE in Europe," says Rissen. "There is less competition in Europe than in the US. In the U.S., there is Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) Verizon wants to get ready with LTE in case the [WiMax] network is a success."

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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