Saturday, 26 December 2009

EU telecoms: Reaping the digital dividend vs costs of non-Europe

The 2987th Council meeting, in the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy (TTE) configuration from 17 to 18 December 2009 (document 17456/09), adopted conclusions on the digital dividend (page 22):

The digital dividend - Council conclusions

The Council adopted conclusions on transforming the digital dividend into social benefits and economic growth (17113/09).

The digital dividend is the result of the switchover from analogue to digital terrestrial television in Europe, which is expected to be finalised by the member states between now and the end of 2012. The purpose of the Council conclusions is to achieve a certain level of technical and political coordination among the member states with a view to harmonised use of the digital dividend.

The conclusions, in particular:

• highlight the fact that radio spectrum is a scarce resource that needs to be used efficiently,

• stress the importance of the digital dividend in helping to provide high-speed broadband services in rural areas,

• invite the member states to contribute to the development of a common EU approach towards spectrum coordination issues with third countries.

Council conclusions in detail

The summary conclusions referred to Council document 17113/09 Commission Communication - transforming the digital dividend into social benefits and economic growth - Adoption of Council conclusions (8 pages), where a background presentation is given with documentary references and the annexed Council conclusions agreed on are laid down in more detail.

The main issue is the more effective future use of the 800 MHz band for electronic communications services,

Commission proposal

The Council prefers to refer to its own document register, so he Commission communication “Transforming the digital dividend into social benefits and economic growth” transmitted to the Council on 30 October 2009 (document 15289/09) can be found through the register.

On the other hand, the same document can be found on the legal portal Eur-Lex, under Preparatory acts, choosing COM documents, then searching by year and number (if you know them exactly) or by year and month (if you know approximately).

Either way, the communication from the Commission: Transforming the digital dividend into social benefits and economic growth; Brussels, 28.10.2009 COM(2009) 586 final (12 pages), goes into much more detail to explain why the member states should act in a coordinated manner to reap the benefits of radio spectrum being freed for more valuable use than analogue terrestrial television broadcasting.

Coordinating action between sovereign member states is hard work even when highly beneficial, so the Commission distinguished clearly between those actions for which considerable support already existed, and which must be taken now to address the immediate policy objectives of economic growth and bridging the digital divide, and to provide clarity to Member States in the vanguard in the switch to digital, and those actions that required further discussion and agreement with the European Parliament and Council (cf. page 6).

One of the urgent measures was to achieve complete switch-off of analogue TV broadcasting by 2012 in the whole European Union. A second short term challenge was to design common principles (a template) regarding the use of the 800 MHz band of radio spectrum, an act of technical harmonisation (page 6 and 7).

Measures requiring long term strategic decisions included:

• Adoption of a common EU position with a view to more effective cross-border coordination with non-EU countries
• Achieving the EU-wide opening of the 790-862 MHz sub-band to electronic communications services
• Applying a minimum level of spectrum efficiency regarding future uses of the digital dividend

The Commission then turned to forward-looking initiatives that could lead to further increases in the potential size and usability of the digital dividend in the long term:

• Promoting collaboration between Member States to share future broadcasting network deployment plans (e.g. migration to MPEG-4 or DVB-T2).
• Requiring that all digital TV receivers sold in the EU after a certain date (to be defined) are ready to operate with a digital transmission compression standard of the new generation such as the H264/MPEG-4 AVC standard.
• Setting a minimum standard for the ability of digital TV receivers to resist interference (immunity to interference).
• Considering wider deployment of Single Frequency Networks (SFNs).
• Supporting research into ‘frequency-agile’ mobile communications systems.
• Ensuring the continuity of wireless microphone and similar applications by identifying future harmonised frequencies.
• Adopting a common position on the potential use of the ‘white spaces’ as a possible digital dividend.

Detailed studies

The fairly short official communication is available in the various official EU languages: here 22, i.e. all but Irish Gaelic.

As often is the case, the Commission’s proposals are accompanied and underpinned by more detailed studies. This time we find two Staff Working Documents:

Impact assessment SEC(2009) 1436 (47 pages), available in English

Executive summary of the impact assessment SEC(2009) 1437, available in 22 EU languages

This a common pattern: Legislative and other important proposals are translated into all official languages, as are summaries of the main findings, directed at officials of national administrations, enterprises of all sizes and the general public.

Lengthier background studies and the like, thought to be of interest to specialists mainly, are often made available only in English, perhaps in the Commission’s other working languages – French and German – as well.

Cost of non-harmonisation

The costs of membership in the European Union and of EU regulation are often denounced in strident tones, especially in Britain. One of the latest examples is a “study” by the anti-integrationist lobby group Open Europe: Top 100 EU regulations to cost UK economy £ 184 billion by 2020 (21 December 2009).

It is hard to find a word about the reasons for and especially the benefits of regulation, or reasoning about the relative merits of national and European level rules to protect life, health, workers, consumers, the environment, and so on.

This may or may not have been the reason for fellow blogger Nosemonkey to write the post Why regulating and legislating at an EU level is almost always a good thing (23 December 2009). Although Nosemonkey missed the possibility to reach Council decisions by qualified majority voting (QMV), his main argument about the benefits of common regulation hold true, and can actually be widened to cover businesses in addition to governments.

Let us take just one detail concerning an area few normal mortals even think about. The Commission’s study contains the following conclusion about the monetary value of the digital dividend:

One of the main conclusions of the Commission study is that the ‘private value’ that could be created if all Member States were to adopt the 790-862 MHz sub-band for electronic communications services under consistent conditions of use would be between at least EUR 17 billion and up to EUR 44 billion in the most optimistic case, depending on the assumed level of demand for different services.

Why is there so little talk about the costs of lacking European level regulation? Why is Open Europe’s propaganda taken at face value by so many?

Ralf Grahn

P.S. Get to know the emerging EU blogosphere Margot Wallström wrote about, conveniently aggregated by multilingual, our common “village well” for fact, opinion and gossip on European affairs.