Radio spectrum is the basis for wireless communications like Wi-Fi or mobile phones, but is also key to areas like transport, broadcasting, public safety, research, environmental protection, and energy. But radio spectrum is a finite resource, and the devices that use it can easily cross borders: so using it best needs effective and efficient coordination at European level.

The importance of Radio Spectrum for wireless technologies

Wireless technologies are becoming ever more widespread – and your mobile phone is merely the best known example. The tremendous popularity of smartphones and tablet computers is a case in point. They all depend on wireless connectivity and benefit from wireless broadband, the digital dividend, the Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) proposal and in the future also from ongoing activities on spectrum for 5G. Another example is Wi-Fi technology, used by millions for easier internet connections at home and in the office.

And indeed, more and more sectors, so-called verticals, are using various wireless technologies, e.g. for logistics applications using RFIDs to connect sensor networks or automate processes in factories or at home. In addition, vehicles increasingly use wireless technologies (e.g. radars and in the future vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication) to increase road safety, and eventually drive autonomously, and the radio spectrum is also vital in areas from scientific services to satellite communications.

The next steps in the European Union's Radio Spectrum Policy

Given the growing importance of the radio spectrum as a natural resource for the digital society, and building on the progress made under the Radio Spectrum Decision (676/2002/EC), in 2012 the European Union established a Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP) to define key policy objectives and set up general principles for managing radio spectrum in the internal market.

This programme supports the goals and key actions of the Europe 2020 initiative and the Digital Single Market and in particular focuses on:

  • eliminating the digital divide;
  • efficient use of spectrum;
  • promoting investments, competition and innovation; and
  • protecting general interest objectives such as cultural diversity and media pluralism.

The term radio spectrum generally refers to electromagnetic frequencies between 9 kHz (kilohertz) and 3000 GHz (gigahertz) with wavelengths between one millimetre and thousands of kilometres.

Adopted by the European Council and the Parliament on 14 March 2012, the RSPP also defined a roadmap for the next steps in EU Radio Spectrum Policy. It focuses on the spectrum needs for wireless broadband systems. Also the requirements of other areas (such as audiovisual, transport, research, environment protection or energy) are taken into account by the RSPP, while safeguarding essential defence, emergency or earth observation requirements. Based on the policy objectives as defined in the RSPP, the European Commission together with all Member States has been working to complete the internal market for wireless innovation.

On 11 December 2018, the EU Electronic Communications Code was adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. This includes updated rules for radio spectrum management which aim at creating a stable regulatory environment, improving coordination of spectrum, facilitating the development of 5G networks and reducing divergences between regulatory practices across the EU to boost the single market.

A common approach to spectrum regulation in Europe

All wireless technologies must transmit and receive information via the radio spectrum. Such transmissions can be used for a range of different purposes. However, in order to ensure that competing applications for radio spectrum do not interfere with each others’ operations, it is essential to coordinate the use of frequencies and properly regulate both nationally and internationally.

Maximising the economic benefits of the single European market needs coordination on a European scale: to harmonise spectrum access rules across borders. The overall aim of the EU's Radio Spectrum Policy is therefore to coordinate the approach to radio spectrum management across the Union to foster modernised spectrum management, ensuring Europe gets the most benefit from its use of this finite resource, both now and in the future.

Three main goals: harmonisation, efficiency, availability

On the EU level, radio spectrum policy has three main goals, which are:

  • the harmonisation of spectrum access conditions across the Union's internal market, enabling interoperability and economies of scale for wireless equipment;
  • a more efficient use of spectrum;
  • improved availability of information about the current use, future plans for use and availability of spectrum.

In short, spectrum policy is one instrument which works towards the creation of the Digital Single Market.

Based on the EU's regulatory framework for electronic communications, the modernisation of spectrum management is aimed at facilitating spectrum access through more flexibility in usage conditions and market-led mechanisms to manage spectrum usage rights, such as spectrum trading, as well as by introducing more efficient or intelligent technologies that can share frequencies and the well targeted re-allocation/re-purposing of spectrum for the internal market.