Isn’t it about time for Universal Broadband Access in Europe?

23 October 2012 Author: EIFonline

James Elles, MEP and EIF Co-Founder, chaired the 10 October EIF breakfast debate which focused on the topic of Wireless Broadband and Universal Access.

Click here to see the programme of the debate and listen to the speeches.

The first speaker Gerard de Graaf, Director of Electronic Communications Networks and Services at DG CONNECT. He began with the observation that in order to meet the Commission’s Digital Agenda targets for broadband roll-out a mix of technologies will be needed, such as fiber, cable, ADSL, VDSL, vectoring and satellite. Europe, de Graaf noted with regret, has fallen behind the US in broadband access. Due to this, he continued, a number of major tech firms increasingly treat Europe as a secondary market. (de Graaf mentioned the fact that Apple’s new iPhone 5 lacks compatibility with 4G networks throughout much of Europe.)

Director de Graaf argued that while Europe is moving in the right direction unfortunately political decision-making is not keeping up with the pace of technological change and evolving economic realities. He noted that despite potentially huge dividend latent in the transition from analogue to digital television broadcasting (which freed up significant bands of spectrum) at present only seven member states are on-target to meet the established regulatory reform deadlines. This boon of additional spectrum may be unavailable for use throughout large parts of Europe due to political paralysis.

In the absence of a sense of political urgency on these issues, de Graaf continued, Europe risks falling farther behind, while the rest of the world rushes to embrace emerging technologies such as the internet of things and machine-to-machine communication. Referring to the previous evening's debate about the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), Director de Graaf noted that while the CEF is a potentially invaluable instrument it urgently needs political support. If, he continued, CEF funding were to be reduced, what kind of signal would it communicate regarding Europe’s commitment to building modern infrastructure and maintaining competitive advantages?

Next up was Patrick Biewer, Managing Director at SES Broadband Services. He presented the benefits of hybrid systems discussed some key developments in this area. Subdistribution, for example, is a turnkey solution for serving villages in rural areas, where satellite is used as a backhaul and combined with terrestrial infrastructure to close the last mile. Hbb TV (Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV) combines high-quality satellite television with internet via existing terrestrial broadband infrastructure. Where land-based connectivity is unavailable, next-generation satellite broadband connectivity can be used to close the gap. This combination, he argued, represents the most efficient use of spectrum and at minimal cost by leveraging the core of existing infrastructure. Biewer went on to discuss the new SAT>IP communication protocol for the reception and distribution of satellite signals. SAT>IP translates satellite TV signals (DVB-S and DVB-S2) into IP, allowing a household with existing satellite television access to attain download speeds of up to 4 GBps.

Mr. Biewer noted that these technological developments are relevant precisely because they address video distribution, which is both a core strength of satellite networks and also the biggest driver of traffic growth on the internet. Hybrid systems, he argued, can provide a low-cost revolutionary user experience regardless of geography. Satellite, Biewer continued, in combination with existing terrestrial infrastructure, can go a long way towards achieving 100% coverage by 2013.

European policymakers increasingly recognise the role of satellite in closing the digital divide. Yet while subdistribution represents both a pragmatic and cost-effective solution for rural villages it is frequently disqualified from public tenders which are limited to purely terrestrial approaches. Therefore ESOA has taken the lead in a coalition called DigitALL, which brings together the voices of rural citizens, regional authorities, and industry associations to promote the idea that every European should have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the broadband internet as fast as possible. In closing, he urged that the principal of technological neutrality be evenly applied.

Mikael Halen, Director of Government & Industry Relations at Ericsson, was the morning's closing speaker. He opened by proclaiming that "it’s time for everyone to get broadband in Europe!" Halen observed that while 3G mobile broadband is widely deployed Europe has fallen behind in 4G build-out. While there are presently about 28 million 4G subscribers worldwide, according to his figures only about 1 million are in Europe with the remainder coming mainly from the US, South Korea and Japan. South Korea, Halen noted, has already reached 99% population coverage with 4G mobile broadband and is targeting 90% market penetration by 2014. He went on to ponder what this might mean to future South Korean economic competitiveness.

Halen acknowledged that early availability of sub-1GHz spectrum and mature fiber infrastructure for back-haul account for these countries' advantage in deploying 4G. South Korea swiftly reallocated its 850MHz spectrum to 4G while in the US 700MHz spectrum was allocated to Verizon and AT&T already by June 2009. Europe's goal of Universal Access would surely have benefited from earlier availability of 800Mhz spectrum along with the reallocation of the 900MHz bands. Halen pointed out that sub-1GHz spectrum is about 3-4 times as efficient in terms of geographic coverage when compared with the traditional 2.1GHz 3G bands.

Halen went on to highlight some European 4G successes. For example, within 18 months of the German 800MHz spectrum allocations there was full coverage within eleven Bundeländer. In the case of Sweden, of the remaining 500 or so remaining localities lacking a minimum of 1Mbps connectivity, 4G coverage will be deployed (based on the 800MHz bands) underwritten by revenues from the public spectrum auction.

4G broadband is also about 10x faster than 3G. This easily translates into back-haul demands of 100Mbps and up. In most cases fiber or microwave-relay backbone connectivity is needed to supply the bandwidth to meet this demand. While fiber and microwave links are generally the most cost-effective back-haul transport these technologies are not an option in very remote areas. Halen suggested that in such cases satellite connectivity is a good workable solution to 4G backbone transport.

While the impending release of sub-1GHz spectrum across Europe may be a giant leap forward towards the goal of Universal Access, this question of back-haul transport remains a major obstacle to be overcome. Halen proposed that streamlined microwave licensing procedures within the member states in combination with a viable deployment model for licensees would achieve much towards closing this backbone gap and thereby closing in on the goal of universal broadband access.

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