The European Commission has targeted Malta together with several other EU countries in its drive to push for the launch of next generation 4G mobile communication services, giving them a little more time to make sure the necessary frequencies are available. Indeed Malta was singled out, together with Cyprus and Ireland, as not having 4G at all.

Malta requested the derogation since the 800 MHz band is still caught in a dispute with the Italian authorities over TV broadcasts interference from Sicily

Earlier this year i-Tech reported how the Maltese mobile network providers still think there is still a lot of capacity on their current 3G network but are already thinking of 4G, especially the Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology.

They are waiting for the market to be ripe for launch, with the necessary mobile handsets available to consumers.

The Commission has just granted Malta a derogation on the transfer of the 800MHz frequency band from its use for TV broadcasts to wireless broadband data communication (4G). The new deadline is December 31, 2014, two years later than the original January 1, 2013 target date given to all EU member states.

Malta requested the derogation since the 800 MHz band is still caught in a dispute with the Italian authorities over TV broadcasts interference from Sicily. Malta has a TV broadcasting frequency channel which lies in the 800 MHz band and it requires a replacement channel coordinated with neighbouring countries before it can clear the band from broadcasting and make it available for electronic communications services.

The Malta Communications Authority (MCA) confirmed with i-Tech that Malta requested the assistance of the Radio Spectrum Policy Group (RSPG), bilateral cooperation working group. This group was established with the primary aim of supporting EU member states in resolving any issues between neighboring countries.

“Both the European Commission and the RSPG working group have actively supported Malta in resolving its spectrum coordination issues with Italy.  Indicatively, current issues should be resolved within a timeframe that allows for the derogation deadline to be brought forward to 2014.  However, the derogation also provides for the possibility of this deadline of 2014 to be extended should current issues with Italy persist,” reassured an MCA spokesman.

The 800 MHz band is described as part of the ‘digital dividend’, the spectrum freed up by the transition from analogue to digital television technology. Malta made the transition to digital TV in 2011. In particular, this frequency band has the potential to support wireless broadband throughout an entire country, including remote and rural areas.

So far, only 11 member states announced that they have effectively allowed the use of the 800 MHz band for wireless broadband communications.

The Commission insists Europeans are suffering because most member states are too slow delivering 4G mobile broadband spectrum. Member states have provided further evidence of why radio spectrum needs to be assigned with greater coordination across the European Union. Half the EU countries, including Malta, have requested to postpone the use of the 800 MHz band for wireless broadband due to exceptional reasons, missing the January 1, 2013 deadline they had originally agreed to.

The Commission said it has ‘reluctantly’ granted nine of the 14 requests (Spain, Cyprus, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Austria, Poland, Romania and Finland) in what European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes described as a “pragmatic and final concession”.

Considerations in assessing the derogation requests included the difficulty to immediately free the 800 MHz from broadcasting services, and cross-border frequency coordination problems (in particular with non-EU countries) which made it difficult to free the band. In Malta’s case, the cross-border co-ordination problem is with another EU country.

The European Commission has made it very clear that individual countries and not the EU are to blame for this situation.

However, the MCA insisted with i-Tech that in Malta’s case the licences for use of frequencies in the 900 and 1,800 MHz bands, which were issued in 2011 on a technology neutral basis, allow mobile network operators to deploy services based on the LTE standard.

“An LTE network offers mobile data services, which are very similar to the current deployed 3G HSPA+ networks, although at higher speeds and better latency. The MCA has held informal discussions with local operators to gauge their views on the subject and identify areas that may need to be addressed to facilitate the introduction of LTE services.

“Given that subscribers would require LTE capable devices in order to achieve LTE speeds, the immediate benefits of an LTE network have to be considered in the wider market context and the decision to deploy LTE networks is therefore purely a commercial one,” the authority explained.

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