Spring is in the air for spectrum managers

Spring is in the air for spectrum managers

Spectrum management is a thankless task. I’ve engaged with many Ministers when I was a Civil Servant and few wanted to know about anything beyond the next General Election. In the private sector, dominated by shareholder value, the entire organisation’s time horizon seemed to be the next quarter’s financial results. Yet I look back in history and the world’s greatest achievements in spectrum management took over 10 years to pull-off. In October 1980 a French spectrum manager invited a few of his buddies from other European countries for an informal chat over coffee. He was worried about finding new mobile spectrum in France and threw out the idea of European countries solving the problem together around 900 MHz…perhaps some military systems could be moved out. Twelve years later the very first type approved GSM mobiles came onto the European market. Over the next 20 years GSM has generated trillions of dollars of wealth globally and millions of jobs. Those cups of coffee in Paris really paid for themselves!

EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes has seen Europe fall from the world’s leader in mobile technology with GSM to a status of such humiliation that a US company ATT recently offered to take over some European mobile operators to teach them how to make a success of 4G. At the very centre of this spectacular descent has been the absence of any engagement of the Commission, Governments and National Regulators in preparing the conditions for “Team Europe” to pool its collective strength and be ready to roll out 4G when the starting gun was fired. The uncoordinated way the 4G spectrum was released lay at the heart of this. All sorts of excused can be made about the complexity of releasing the ex-TV 800 MHz spectrum. But refarmed GSM spectrum could have been used right across Europe at a much earlier stage and the spectrum at 2.6 GHz could also have been released 5 years ago with a bit of effort. This new interest from the Commission is to be warmly welcomed. However, the EU Commission need to ensure that their ambitions do not run too far ahead of their ability to handle the detail. They have to focus on the relatively few really big potential prizes and leave the rest to Member States.

Nearer to home the most shocking state of affairs in UK spectrum management has been the gulf that has opened up between Ofcom and the mobile industry. Some off this is down to Ofcom dreaming up flights of fancy like “spectrum trading” that industry left industry rooted on the ground wondering where there regulator had gone. However the gulf between Ofcom and the industry widened to breaking point when Ofcom decided, on competition grounds, to put at the top of the spectrum policy agenda forcing a slither of spectrum out of the hands of the two 900 MHz mobile operators and into the struggling 5th mobile operator. The UK soon found itself in the appalling situation of High Court Judges becoming our spectrum managers. And if anyone thinks this is an exaggeration they should read the detailed reasoning in the judgement of the case of “O2 versus Ofcom”. A lot of credit goes to a top Ofcom official H Nwana (who has just left Ofcom) for digging everyone out of this very deep hole. His was a job well done.

The DCMS Minister Ed Vaizey deserves our praise for recognising the urgent need to re-engage with industry in a more constructive dialogue on radio spectrum and an excellent choice has been made in appointing Prof Jim Norton to lead the industry hosted Spectrum Policy Forum. As with any advisory body, its sole influence will come from quality of the advice they give to the Minister – is it relevant, sound, timely and do-able? The biggest challenge is probably getting the industry representatives to think long term. It is exceeding difficult to get top industry people to mentally engage on issues whose impact is 5 years out and beyond. The issues become unreal to them. This is where the choice of Jim Norton is so important…he has the confidence of industry and the intellectual grasp of how long term strategies get eventually turned into huge opportunities.

Finally I come to Ofcom. They found themselves overwhelmed with short term issues of the Olympics, clearing TV out of the 800 MHz band and the 4G Auction and put a sign over the department dealing with long term planning which read “temporarily closed for business”. Well that sign has been taken down now and Ofcom’s forward thinking re-energised. Exciting new ideas for spectrum sharing are now under study. This happily coincides with the arrival at Ofcom of a new supremo for spectrum management. Philip Marnick. Phillip comes with wide industry experience and will find a very good and enthusiastic staff at Ofcom but his greatest challenge will be not to get sucked into the Ofcom culture…risk adverse, process centric and reluctant to change anything without solid evidence. The problem in spectrum terms from being “evidence based” is that it leaves Ofcom always looking backwards in time. New opportunities always come from the future.

Three new faces in UK spectrum leadership Philip Marnick, Jim Norton and we have to add Neelie Kroes sitting in Brussels. Spring is in the air for spectrum managers. Let’s note their names now because if they really do a successful job their names will have been long forgotten when the rich fruits of their really big decisions come to be enjoyed at least ten years from now. Thinking really long term is one of the hallmarks of good spectrum management. I wish them all well.


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