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EC proposes using TV spectrum for WiMax

U.K. spectrum freed as TV converts from analog to digital could be allocated to WiMax, shrinking digital divide, commissioner says.

Ultra-high frequency spectrum should be allocated to WiMax once Europe's analog television signals are phased out, the European commissioner for information society and media has proposed.

Commissioner Viviane Reding made the suggestion during a broadband-related speech in Greece in early June. Reding noted that plans were already under way across Europe to open up the 2.6GHz band for mobile broadband usage, which could use the wireless data-delivery technology known as WiMax or a variation of 3G to connect to customers.

She also called the so-called digital dividend--the freeing up of spectrum brought about by the switch from analog to digital--a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to tackle the digital divide.

"If we want significant wireless broadband speeds at a low price we will need more frequency in spectrum ranges that have high propagation characteristics," Reding said. "Policy makers need to look at the digital dividend created by the switch over from analog to digital TV very closely to see if they can carve out space for wireless broadband in the ultra-high frequency, or UHF, space.

"Even a relatively small part of this spectrum range could provide the basis, bridging the digital divide in rural areas in a scalable and cost-effective manner, as well as providing the basis for an alternative infrastructure competition in both urban and rural communities."

The spectrum in question lies between 500MHz and 800MHz. Because this is a much lower frequency range than the 2.6GHz and 5.8GHz bands currently identified for WiMax and 3G's long-term evolution, it offers the possibility of far .

The Office of Communications, also known as Ofcom, the U.K.'s telecommunications and broadcast regulator, is already proposing to repackage UHF spectrum into bundles for use by multiple technologies once television's digital switchover is completed. Ofcom welcomed Reding's words--at least in part.

"We are confident our proposals are compatible with what is being discussed at a European level," an Ofcom representative said. "There is a large amount of spectrum--around 112MHz--that will be made available, and we have made it clear that there is potential for many different users and uses of that spectrum." The representative pointed out that a further consultation document on the digital dividend would emerge later this year.

However, one part of Reding's speech drew a different response. The commissioner sang the praises of "more competition, more services and more choice," which are ideals close to Ofcom's heart. But, she added, "this would have to be done on the basis of the public interest. I do not believe that high-stakes auctions in which only those with the deepest pockets can take part would be effective. We need to encourage investment and competition--we need cheap, wide-band services for all."

"The situation is a little more complicated than that," Ofcom's representative said in response. "It is the organizations that have the business plans to make the most effective use of that spectrum and maximize revenues (that will win out) if we have an auction mechanism."

On the subject of the digital divide, Ofcom insisted that the gap in broadband connectivity between urban and rural areas in the U.K. is narrowing, as indicated by recent research showing that 41 percent of adults in rural areas had broadband at home, while 45 percent of adults in urban areas had broadband service at home. The representative also pointed to Ofcom's recent decision to allow higher-powered transmission in the 5.8GHz band.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.