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Digital dividend – France is paving the way for harmonised decisions across Europe
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The French Government yesterday announced its decision to share ‘digital-dividend’ spectrum between both electronic communications and audiovisual services, following the recommendation of the Digital Dividend Parliamentary Commission published in July 2008.

This decision was presented as part of the "France numérique 2012” plan unveiled by Eric Besson, France’s Secretary of State for the Development of Digital Economy, at a press conference held at the Elysée Palace. It was announced that the majority of the radio spectrum released by the switching off of analogue television broadcasting (the ‘digital dividend’) is to be allocated for use by digital audiovisual services (as required by French law).

The plan also provides for 72MHz of this UHF spectrum being allocated to electronic communications services to allow citizens to benefit from the deployment of new, innovative, and competitive services and to reduce the ‘digital divide’. This will help to achieve the French Government’s long-term objective of ensuring that 100% of the French population has access to very high-speed fixed/mobile broadband everywhere in the country.

The French decision on the re-allocation of this spectrum is consitent with recommendations from other bodies: The 72MHz allocated to electronic communications services in the “France numérique 2012” plan correspond to the sub-band identified by the 2007 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-07) for electronic communications services, and lies between 790MHz and 862MHz.

Furthermore, the European Parliament’s resolution2 dated 24 September 2008 recognised that “the increased spectrum efficiency of digital terrestrial television should allow for around 100MHz of digital dividend to be re-allocated to mobile broadband and other services”.

The European Parliament also highlighted the need for “effective and efficient” spectrum management and stated that the “allocation of the digital dividend should serve the general interest by ensuring the best social, cultural, and economic value to citizens”.

In May 2008, Analysys (now Analysys Mason) and Hogan & Hartson conducted a study3 for the French regulator ARCEP to quantify the impact of the French Government’s decision. The study showed that the allocation of a proportion of the released spectrum to mobile broadband services could provide an additional benefit to the French economy between 2012 and 2024 of over EUR25 billion more than if the digital dividend was allocated exclusively to audiovisual services4.

The “France numérique 2012” plan sets out the roadmap for the evolution of digital services across France: by 2012 the allocation of the majority of the digital-dividend frequencies to audiovisual services will allow the equivalent of 11 DTT multiplexes covering approximately 95% of the French population and 2 mobile TV multiplexes (capable of providing 32 TV channels) with a coverage of 80% of the population5.  The 11 DTT multiplexes will enable a widespread move to HDTV with a total of 40 HD channels6. 

The allocation of 72MHz to electronic communications services will enable 99% of the French population to have access to very high-speed fixed/mobile broadband and to benefit from new and competitive electronic communications services.

However, there remain several questions of great importance for industry players and citizens within France:

  • Under what conditions will licences be assigned to operators? Is the organisation of an auction (following the example of the recent US 700MHz auction) realistic? Will the assignment process for digital-dividend frequencies be co-ordinated with the assignment of the fourth 3G licence?
  • 72MHz will enable the deployment of a limited number of very high-speed mobile broadband networks. What will this number be (one or two as is technically possible)? Will the implementation of the sharing of radio access networks or frequencies be a relevant and realistic solution for mobile operators in France? If so, what is the timeframe?
  • What concrete measures will be taken to reach the French government’s objective of very high-speed fixed/mobile broadband for all on the whole French territory? What role will satellite have to play regarding very high-speed mobile broadband national coverage?

There are also issues relating to the development of the market on an international level:

  • Will equipment vendors and operators place UMTS, HSDPA, and LTE equipment that uses digital-dividend spectrum at the centre of their development roadmaps? And will vendors standardise equipment in the 790-862MHz sub-band chosen by the French?
  • Will other European Member States engage in a national debate on the use of the digital dividend (as has recently taken place not only in France, but also Ireland and the UK), in order to lead to government decisions in the near future? If so, what is the timeframe? Can they be expected to follow a more ‘technology-neutral’ approach?
  • What role does the European Commission have to play in supporting the realisation of benefits, which depend on a pan-European market?

Setting out the digital-dividend re-allocation plan at a national and pan-European level is critical for the telecoms and audiovisual sectors across Europe. It provides visibility and transparency to industry players – including broadcasters, telecoms operators, and network equipment or terminal manufacturers – in terms of services and investments.

Analysys Mason and Hogan & Hartson therefore believe that this decision represents an important contribution to achieving a critical mass of users of mobile broadband services. If similar actions are undertaken by other Member States, it will also be a key step in reaching fully harmonised decisions across the EU.

Now that the French decision has paved the way for harmonised decisions in Europe, attention is moving to the other Member States’s re-allocation decisions.