On September 21, 2017, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs announced a 4G/5G spectrum auction for 3Q19. The ministry plans to sell frequencies in the 700MHz, 1400MHz, and 2100MHz bands. Full details of the auction process are expected to be published by the end of 2017 and will be based on consultation responses received earlier in the year.
Preventing mobile operators from using the 3.5GHz band could prove detrimental for the country's digital progress
There has been a clear push by national regulators across Europe to release more spectrum, particularly 5G-suitable spectrum, since the EC announced its 5G Action Plan in September 2016. The Netherlands is the most recent country to announce that it will release frequencies across three bands before 2020. Once auctioned, licenses in the 700MHz, 1400MHz, and 2100MHz bands will be valid for 20 years. These frequencies will certainly enable operators to improve their reach, and the allocations will carry coverage obligations for areas of the country where mobile broadband connectivity continues to be inadequate.
Although this announcement will be welcomed by operators that are demanding more spectrum to ensure that they can increase their capacity and speeds to meet growing demand, the auction is still two years away. Several other member states have already auctioned the 700MHz band, for example, including Finland, France, and Germany, and even though the Dutch auction is timetabled to take place before the first deployments are expected in 2020, the delay could put Dutch operators at a distinct disadvantage compared to other EU countries.
However, many operators will be more disappointed by the absence of any spectrum being released in the 3.5GHz band, which the EC has identified as a pioneer band for 5G. This band has been receiving considerable interest from operators elsewhere in the EU. Ovum data from the Spectrum Auction Tracker: 2017 shows that seven EU countries have already awarded spectrum in the 3.4–3.8GHz range, and a further five will have awarded the spectrum by the end of 2018. Regulators have typically been able to release anywhere between 350MHz and 400MHz to mobile operators, which considerably boosts their holdings and stands them in good stead for 5G. However, the Dutch government has chosen not to grant mobile use of the 3.5GHz band, as it will continue to be used by a satellite station in Burum until at least 2020, and there are no plans yet to free up the band in the near future. In this respect, the Netherlands' spectrum policy is inconsistent with the EU's spectrum policy framework and could prove detrimental to the country's digital progress as it rolls out 5G services.
Some of the new applications of 5G connectivity, such as continuous services for connected cars moving across borders, require coverage to become available simultaneously in all member states. With most EU countries pushing the release of the 3.5GHz band, failing to harmonize spectrum as per international standards could see the Netherlands lag behind other member states in the longer term. It currently ranks among the top countries in the EU for mobile broadband coverage and penetration, but its position could be in jeopardy if its spectrum policy continues to exclude the 3.5GHz band.
Spectrum Auction Tracker: 2017, TE0007-001188 (September 2017)
5G Service Provider Tracker: 2Q17, TE0009-001666 (July 2017)
Sarah McBride, Analyst, Regulation