Monthly Archives: February 2009

Ofcom cripples ICO’s EU S-Band bid, recommends ITU to cancel previous 2GHz assignments

The fortunes of the Solaris Mobile project – the JV between satellite operators Astra and Eutelsat which seeks to create a market for mobile satellite services across Europe – received a boost today with an announcement from UK regulator Ofcom that it planned to write to the ITU to recommend cancellation of rival operator ICO’s previous assignments in the S-Band.

In a short statement, the regulator said:

“Following a review of the status of the deployment of the ICO-P mobile satellite system conducted over a three year period involving extensive consultation with ICO Global Communications (ICO), and having carefully considered the representations made by ICO, Ofcom has taken a decision that it will write to the ITU on 17 March to instruct that the ICO-P assignments currently recorded in the ITU Master Register be cancelled.”

Ofcom is responsible for ICO’s spectrum assignments because it is the ITU representative for the Cayman Islands, the offshore tax haven which ICO cites as its base for tax purposes.

Solaris Mobile has been confirmed as an ‘admissible candidate’ by the EC for the S-Band (2GHz) beauty contest, along with ICO Satellite Limited, Inmarsat Ventures Limited, and TerreStar Europe Limited.

The Eutelsat W2A satellite which Solaris plans to use was due to become operational in February 2009, enabling it to claim that it was the only one of the four able to meet “European Commission expectations that cross border Mobile TV services are likely to start in 2009.”

However, Eutelsat recently announced that W2A would be delayed, launching on 28th March.

ICO had previously laid claims to part of the S-Band for its own DVB-SH venture, on the basis of the past award of the frequencies to the company by the ITU. Indeed, in a recent SEC filing, ICO said that it had initiated proceedings in the European Court of First Instance seeking the annulment of the European Parliament decision that had engendered the EC S-Band contest, contending that the decision was illegal and should be annulled because of its own prior claim.

If the ITU now agrees with the Ofcom recommendation, and cancels the ICO registration, those proceedings would now presumably fall, and ICO would have to win the EC beauty contest on its own merits.

As ConnectedTV has previously commented, Solaris Mobile is a firm favourite for the S-Band award, and the Ofcom decision has now served to strengthen that position.

Update 28/02/09

Overnight, ICO has responded furiously to the Ofcom move, saying that it takes “strong exception” to the Ofcom statement, pointing out that ICO F2, the first orbiting satellite in the MEO constellation, was launched in June, 2001 and continues to provide services in the S-Band. ICO goes on to say that its ITU S-Band registrations were the result of “having spent more than a decade and billions of dollars constructing an international satellite system, as well as its continued efforts to further enhance its satellite system.”

ICO added that it had “recently prevailed in a significant legal action against the Boeing companies regarding the fraudulent activity, breach of contract and tortious interference which caused the delays related to the deployment of the remainder of the system. ICO is continuing to defend its international legal rights, including through participation in international regulatory organizations and litigation.”

In other words, the satellite operator is not about to drop its case before the European Court of First Instance, even if Ofcom has just holed it below the water-line.

Germany falls in line with UK and France on harmonization of 800MHz band for mobile broadband

Germany will be the first country after the UK to harmonise the so-called 800MHz band (780-862MHz) for mobile broadband use, and others will follow soon, it emerged yesterday at Informa’s Digital Switchover Strategies conference in London.

Pearse O’Donahue, head of the Radio Spectrum Policy unit in the European Commission’s Information, Society and Media Directorate-General, told delegates that the German move indicated the EC was succeeding in its mission to persuade Member States of the benefits of earmarking a common frequency band across the EU for possible future use by future mobile broadband services (see previous post here).

Els Hendricks, head of European affairs at commercial broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1, confirmed that Germany’s agreement to harmonisation was imminent, subject to the regulator agreeing to certain conditions demanded by German broadcasters.

These included future occupants of the 800MHz band compensating broadcasters for the costs associated with migrating any broadcast services already occupying these frequencies.

In the UK, Ofcom has put these costs at £5-18m.

Matthew Conway, director of operations at Ofcom’s Spectrum Policy Group, indicated there were other European territories apart from Germany that would follow the UK’s lead, but declined to identify them.

However, Elena Puigrefagut, a senior technical engineer at the European Broadcasting Union, argued that those countries that had so far agreed to harmonization were confined to those where the costs of doing so were lowest, because they had minimal usage of the 800MHz band. The EBU’s analysis showed that the first five Member States to agree to the move – Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, France and the UK – all fell into this category.

She concluded that the costs of harmonization were very significant for the majority of European territories, and predicted that it would lead to a ‘second switchover’.

Ofcom following Europe’s lead on clearing 790-862MHz band (so what happened to technology neutrality?)

News that the UK regulator, Ofcom, proposes to follow the example of other European countries such as France, and reserve the 790-862MHz spectrum band for mobile broadband, appears to represent a departure from the regulator’s previous policies towards spectrum allocation.

As recently as June 2008, Ofcom had confirmed its proposals “to take a market-led approach to awarding the digital dividend, giving users the flexibility to decide its use”; and “not to intervene to reserve the spectrum for any particular use, and to award the spectrum by auction.”

In line with this policy, the regulator had resisted European moves to harmonise usage of any particular band across Europe, notably a suggestion to allocate a frequency band for pan-European mobile TV services.

Thus it was that two lots of UHF channels were due to be auctioned off by Ofcom this summer to the highest bidder: 31-40 and 63-68.

According to the latest proposals, however, clearing 790-862MHz would extend the upper of these two bands downwards to include 61-62 (originally only the interleaved spectrum in these frequencies was due to be auctioned off – i.e. the ‘white spaces’ dotted around the country at regional level which remain unused for DTT), and upwards to include 69 (which was to be allocated to Programme Making and Special Events – i.e. wireless microphone use – through a beauty contest).

Among the arguments Ofcom put forward in favour of that move this week is that: “This will allow new wireless services, particularly mobile broadband, to be launched here and across Europe.”

Ofcom goes on to say that it estimates the net benefits of the move, “conservatively, at £2-3 billion in net present value (NPV). A major reason why these benefits are so large is that, if we make the same spectrum available as other countries, better mobile broadband services can be provided to consumers at lower cost.”

Ofcom reiterated this week that this doesn’t represent a departure from a market-led, technology-neutral approach. On the other hand, it does seems to be assuming that mobile broadband services will occupy these frequencies. But how is it able to make that assumption if it believes spectrum to be technology-neutral? Presumably, none of the claimed benefit would be obtained if winning UK bidders for the upper sub-band turned out to want it for TV. Then the costs of the harmonisation (which Ofcom estimates at between £90-200m) would have been wasted.

Clearly, then, Ofcom can no longer really believe in technology neutrality. It is now signalling that given the trend by other European countries to harmonise this band, in effect the spectrum has become much more suitable for mobile broadband services than anything else.

One of the intriguing consequences of the move could be actually to lessen the take from the auction process. Given the implied constraints on the spectrum’s most effective use, it is entirely possible that fewer bidders might now enter the race. Usually, less competition would be assumed to entail a lower price – although if a reduced band of bidders take heed of Ofcom’s suggestion that better mobile broadband services could be offered at lower cost, they could conceivably all decide to risk more.

Unfortunately, we are going to have to wait until 2010 to find out the result. As part of this week’s announcement, Ofcom confirmed, as most of the industry was expecting, that the auctions were now not going to take place this summer, as originally planned, but next year.

Eutelsat announces French rival to Astra’s broadband-by-satellite service

Having recently given over some editorial space to a consideration of Astra’s broadband-via-satellite solution, Astra2Connect, it seems only fair to mention Eutelsat’s rival version, Tooway, whose launch I attended at IBC in 2007.

This week Eutelsat announced that it had launched the service in France through partners Numeo and Sat2Way at ‘no more than €35/month, equipment included.’

The price-point is significant, since it meets the government’s expectation in its updated France Numérique 2012 plan (NB, PDF) that any household in the country, wherever it is located, should be able to access broadband at speeds above 512KBit/s for €35/m or less.

The Tooway service claims to deliver downstream speeds to users’ PCs of 2MBit/s coupled with an upstream rate of 384KBit/s.

To access the service, consumers will require a dish and modem, which are included in the monthly subscription fee proposed by Numéo and Sat2Way.

Repeating a suggestion noted in the Astra2Connect post, Eutelsat is claiming that service-providers could use Tooway “to build triple-play offers combining Internet access, Voice over IP and IPTV channels” – the IPTV claim in particular being one that Connected TV is sceptical about.

Nevertheless, the price of the Eutelsat service compares advantageously to Astra2Connect’s – if that is, it really does offer 2MBit/s. To get that service-level, UK users of the Astra service would have to fork out £74.99 a month, the kit would cost £299, and installation a further £100. Moreover, the Astra service only supports an upstream rate of £128KBit/s.

Eutelsat’s announcement says that in Europe, Swisscom, Switzerland’s national telecommunications operator, the ISP Fastweb in Italy and Telecable and Distecable in Spain have already selected Tooway to extent broadband access.

Tooway currently uses Ka-band capacity on Eutelsat’s HOT BIRD 6 satellite, but in 2010 the operator will deploy a new satellite infrastructure to support the service’s widescale deployment throughout Europe.

Eutelsat says this will offer performance levels comparable to ADSL-2, with speeds to the user of 10 MBit/s downstream.