EU frequency plan alarms b'casters

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BRUSSELS -- European broadcasters on Wednesday warned that they may be squeezed out of the market if the European Union moves forward with plans to sell off broadcast frequencies to such users as mobile phone operators.

In November, the European Commission proposed selling off the open market frequencies used by broadcasters, mobile phone operators and air traffic controllers. But the European Broadcasters Union said that competition for access to spectrum will add huge costs for broadcasters.

"This would have a direct impact on European audiovisual production as this would most likely lead to a decrease in European programming," said the EBU, which includes such broadcasters as ARD, Canal Plus, ProSiebenSat.1 and RTL Group.

The competition will be fiercer in the next few years as HDTV channels -- which require more bandwidth than standard digital terrestrial television -- come into play, the EBU said.

"Any change in regulation at this point would strongly discourage regulation," Canal Plus Group secretary general Frederic Mion said. "If frequencies can be bought and sold and bought again, and no public interest criteria are demanded, then broadcasters will lose out."

The EBU was backed by a study by Oliver & Ohlbaum Associates and DotEcon that said broadcasters could not be compared to mobile operators as they did not monetize consumers and had few means to raise their income stream. The study argues that, when it comes to competing for broadcasting frequencies, broadcasters will be adding huge costs but have little scope to recoup their spending apart from draconian cost-cutting measures or increases in license advertising or subscription fees.

This would threaten the 1.9 billion euro ($2.9 billion) annual spend by European broadcasters in original programming, the study said.

However, mobile operators say the plans would generate a windfall. Over the next few years, more radio spectrum will become available as a result of the switch-off of analog broadcasting -- the so-called "digital dividend."

"Early decisions over the timing and availability of spectrum freed up from the digital dividend in the UHF band could benefit the European economy by over 20 billion euros ($30.24 billion)," GSM Europe chair Kaisu Karvala said.

Karvala said that broadband services were still not available in remote parts of Europe and using UHF bands would solve the problem. "Given sufficient spectrum, wireless broadband services have the potential to reach those users that don't have broadband access today," she said.

Broadcasters and mobile phone operators rely on radio spectrum, but they also have to jostle with a growing number of new applications including GPS, weather satellites, radio frequency identification tags and even hearing aids.

EU Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding argues that the current system of managing spectrum separately by the 27 EU member states is overtly bureaucratic. Reding's plan aims to move away from rigid management approaches that tie usage rights of spectrum bands to specific transmission technologies.
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