knowledge | 7 October 2020 |
COVID-19: ComReg Introduces a Further Temporary Spectrum Licensing Framework
On 29 September 2020, the Commission for Communications Regulation (“ComReg”) published its decision to implement a further COVID-19 temporary spectrum licensing framework.1 This will take over from the existing temporary framework which expires on 7 October (see briefing here). The regulations giving effect to the further temporary framework were enacted on 2 October.2
The temporary frameworks allow ComReg to release extra radio spectrum to provide additional capacity for mobile phone and broadband providers due to the strain on mobile networks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In anticipation of the expiry of the first temporary framework and following a request from the mobile network operators, ComReg consulted interested parties on whether the framework should continue, and on what terms. Based on the views it received, ComReg decided to introduce a further temporary framework for six months, operating under the same conditions as the first temporary framework.
This means that mobile network operators may apply for a three-month “further temporary ECS licence” (electronic communications services licence), for rights to avail of radio spectrum in the 700 MHz, 2.1 GHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum bands. Licence holders may renew the licence once for a further three months. However, licence holders may not transfer or lease the rights of use granted under the licence. They also have an obligation to use best efforts to provide outdoor coverage at specific locations that the government may recommend in relation to the extraordinary situation arising from COVID-19.
During the operation of the first temporary framework, ComReg has continued to monitor the weekly aggregate voice and data peak traffic. It found that peak traffic remains significantly greater than the pre-COVID-19 base level (8% greater for voice and 24% for data). It considered that these elevated levels are likely to continue during the situation created by COVID-19 restrictions. Due to this continued increased demand, ComReg has decided that the temporary release of extra spectrum on these spectrum bands continues to be necessary.
Some respondents to the consultation considered that 7 January (the date on which this new three month period will expire) was not an ideal time to have to renew a further temporary ECS licence due to the effects of the Christmas period on mobile networks. To address this, ComReg proposes to contact licence holders towards the end of November, and to allow them to submit their applications for renewal from 1 December. ComReg also addressed queries in respect of the obligation on licence holders to provide outdoor coverage. ComReg stated that it would endeavour to immediately notify licence holders of any specific locations which the Government may determine require outdoor coverage.
Interaction with Multi-band Spectrum Award
Some respondents also requested that the further temporary licensing framework should continue in operation until the completion of the proposed multi-band spectrum award, scheduled for Q1 2021. Through this proposed award, ComReg will assign long-term rights of use in the 700MHz, 2.1 GHz, and 2.6 GHz spectrum bands (i.e., the bands which the temporary licensing framework affects), as well as the 2.3 GHz band. In its current decision, ComReg considered that it would not be objectively justified or proportionate to determine the expiry of any further temporary licences by reference to the completion of the proposed multi-band spectrum award. However, as one respondent noted, it is likely that the expiry of any further temporary licences (on 7 April 2021) will closely align with the completion of the proposed multi-band spectrum award.
Spectrum Lease on the 3.6 GHz Band
ComReg also took note of recent developments in respect of the 3.6 GHz spectrum band, which is the primary pioneer 5G candidate band in the EU, with the 700 MHz and 26 GHz bands also identified as pioneer 5G candidate bands. ComReg noted that Dense Air Limited and the mobile network operators have each proposed to lease spectrum rights on the 3.6 GHz band to Imagine Communications Ireland Limited, which operates a fixed wireless network, but does not provide mobile telecommunications services. ComReg noted that, in recent weeks, Imagine’s fixed wireless network has experienced an increase in peak data traffic higher than that of mobile networks. Granting these leases would allow Imagine to use spectrum assignments in the 3.6 GHz band which are currently unused. ComReg has approved the lease by Dense Air Limited, and intends to soon publish its determination in respect of the lease by the mobile network operators, which it notes would align with the duration of the further temporary spectrum licensing framework.
Also contributed by Ruairí Roantree and Ciarán Donohue.
This briefing is for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. Such advice should always be taken before acting on any of the matters discussed.