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Kroes misses the point in her focus on US rivalry

While harmonized approaches to spectrum will be important enablers of new services, unlicensed bands and new markets more critical

By CAROLINE GABRIEL

Published: 2 August, 2013

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The European Union is "teetering on the edge of network collapse" and has less than one-third of the LTE coverage of the US, said digital commissioner Neelie Kroes last week; Europe has "lost its edge in mobile" and is lagging well behind the US, according to a recent study by the GSM Association. And so it goes on - Europe can no longer engage in its traditional pleasure of sneering at US backwardness in mobile communications.

Kroes blames this on lack of regional coordination and the non-harmonized actions of national regulators; operators blame the regulators too, but for different reasons, mainly related to enforced cuts in roaming fees and termination rates; others point to the region's long recession, which has hit capex plans for the new networks, as well as the progress made in non-cellco wireless services based around Wi-Fi and over-the-top applications.


Whatever the factors, the terms of engagement already sound outdated. The gold standards in advanced 4G roll-outs are - Verizon excepted - in Asia; and the real growth opportunities in the mobile world now lie in emerging markets, and in technologies and spectrum which may not be in the control of current regulators and carriers, such as the TV white spaces initiatives.

This is not a simple technology battle between the US and Europe. This is about different approaches to delivering the mobile web to the whole population. So Wi-Fi is making rapid progress in the EU, while 4G is being held up by the kind of problems that have dogged the digital switchover. Last week, a report by Wik Consulting for the European Commission called for more spectrum to be freed up for Wi-Fi, given that about 71% of wireless data traffic was delivered to mobile devices over the unlicensed networks last year. The analysts recommend that frequencies in the 5150MHz-5925MHz band should be made available globally for Wi-Fi, in addition to new licensed bands.

Kroes leapt on the findings to emphasize her case for light, but harmonized, regulation. She said:

"Wi-Fi is a huge success. It's a win for everybody involved. I will make sure the EC helps to spread use of Wi-Fi through extra spectrum and lighter regulation." She was particularly enthusiastic about the rising trend for wired and wireless carriers to harness 'homespots' - residential access points which have some capacity left open for community use - saying these are a "great example of how we can crowdsource a better internet for everyone".

This is surprisingly modern talk from a telco commissioner, and Kroes certainly grasps many of the issues of the true 4G world - which is not just about narrow '4G' (ie licensed LTE) technologies and models, but about a pool of different networks, spectrum and operating approaches. And that traditional cellular side of the equation risks losing its power, if it does not learn to behave more like its new open counterpart - cellcos may be turning Wi-Fi to their own advantage with offload and HetNet strategies, but that is just an operational issue. Their real challenge is how to work with, or compete with, the other service providers which can also ride on Wi-Fi, with their over-the-top offerings and agile business models.

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