Service-neutral airwaves in Europe

Over the last few weeks, Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Information Society and Media, has further elaborated on her policy objectives concerning the regulation of the telecommunications sector in Europe. Among other statements, she said that air frequencies should become service-neutral, and thus caused an outcry by the television and radio broadcasting establishment.

But what does that mean? Today, specific sectors of the air wave spectrum are allocated to dedicated services, e.g. to terrestrial and cable television (47-854 MHz), GSM mobile telephony (824-1.990 MHz), satellite television (10.70-12.75 GHz), Wireless LAN networks (2.4-2.4835 GHz) or even – and this is not a joke – to microwave ovens (2,455 GHz). The reason for this is two-fold. On the one hand, if everybody would use any frequency he likes in any way he likes, there would be interferences, i.e. everybody’s signal would be disturbed and rendered useless. On the other hand, frequencies have physical characteristics making them suitable for special applications.

Short radio waves, for instance, are reflected by the earth’s atmosphere, so that you can broadcast to the entire world from one single antenna location. In contrast to that, FM radio spreads in a linear direction and is scarcely reflected, basically limiting the reach of a transmission antenna to the horizon visible from its location. And in spite of their very low energy level, satellite TV transmissions must not be stopped or altered by the atmosphere, weather or the occasional Space Shuttle crossing their path down from about 36,000 km above the equator. A terrestrial TV antenna can transmit at 100,000 W of energy and reach 100 km far, but your mobile phone can not, unless you want your brain cooked and the battery empty within seconds. Therefore, the phone must use a frequency able to dependably transport information in two ways over short distances at only around 2 W of transmission power. And so on.

So it becomes clear that a lot of services are indeed connected with certain parts of the frequency spectrum. Yet, in this context, “service” does mean “application”, not “content” – and that is the critical difference here. This is actually what the European Commission addresses. In order to operate a GSM mobile phone service, you need certain qualities of certain air waves. But the exact same properties of a frequency might also come in handy for some other service, which may or may not have been invented yet. So why limit the frequency to GSM use and thus effectively block innovation? To give a more palpable example: In its early days, the Internet was only for computer nerds. It consisted of green characters flashing on a black background, and in order to use it, you had to type in cryptic commands with your keyboard (remember: the mouse had not been invented yet). Then, people at the CERN laboratory in Geneva came up with what we know now as the World Wide Web, which is easy to use and does not only support characters, but images and graphics as well. And today, with its broadband infrastructure, the Internet has become a giant distribution network for video (formerly called television).

Yet, the basic technology behind all that has not very much changed over the years, merely the capacity of the network has increased. Since nobody owns the Internet, nobody could object when new services or contents were introduced. This is different from the frequency spectrum. A portion of it has traditionally been allocated to TV and radio broadcasters, cell phone operators and such. That made sense as long as there was only one technical application for a specific frequency. But in the digital world, that is no longer the case. The same waves that used to transmit television can now also distribute any other kind of data supposed to reach an indefinite number of people at the same time and at low costs.

Just imagine the content of a daily newspaper: Now, they print a couple hundred thousand paper copies and physically ship them overnight to households and newsstands across the continent. This is expensive, slow, and bad for the environment. The same content could be broadcasted within seconds simultaneously to millions of end devices over TV frequencies. Technically, that raises really not much of a challenge, and it would be very cheap and efficient. Naturally, TV broadcasters do not like this idea. Understandably, they would like to remain monopolists on their accustomed frequencies (although they are not at all reluctant to expand into the Internet as an additional distribution platform). But does that mean we should let them? The Commission does not think so. And the same applies for the entire spectrum. With today’s digital technologies, any content can be transported through any medium and any frequency. Apart from its respective capacity, the only remaining functional difference is whether the transport channel has a built-in feedback channel (such as the telephone or DSL connections) or not (such as terrestrial broadcasting).

Take, for instance, Germany’s television distribution: Today, fewer than 4% of the population receive television over the air; everybody else has either cable or satellite. But in order to reach these 4%, the broadcasters exclusively command a very broad spectrum of the air waves – a spectrum that, for example, could be modified to bring broadband internet access even to the remotest corners of the country. Of course, this situation is different in every country.

But what becomes clear is this: If we do not free up frequencies to be used in the best possible way rather than in the traditional way, we will be lagging far behind our potential in terms of business, pluralism, and the information society. Therefore, we should not let the incumbent frequency owners decide about the future of the air waves. Whether that optimal use is best determined by simply auctioning frequencies off to the highest bidder, though, is quite another question.