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Shaping Europe’s digital future

Radio spectrum: the basis of wireless communications

Wireless communications, via public or private networks, use radio spectrum, i.e. a range of radio waves, to carry information. Such communication can be between people, people and machines or systems (“things” more general) or between things. In this context, radio spectrum is also key in enabling and promoting safe, innovative and efficient systems for, among others, transport, energy, public-safety, environmental protection and circular economy systems. Access to radio spectrum is key also in preserving and promoting digital human rights.

    Radio waves

© Getty Images - watchara_tongnoi

What is radio spectrum?

The radio spectrum is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum with frequencies from 30 Hz to 300 GHz. Electromagnetic waves in this frequency range, called radio waves, are widely used in modern technology, particularly in telecommunication. Commonly known technologies that use radio spectrum are wireless broadband cellular ones (e.g. based on the 4th or 5th generation technology standard) and WiFi systems. Beyond these technologies, radio spectrum also enables current and future services in a diverse range of areas, including:

  • broadcasting, including news reporting, interviewing and theatrical productions (e.g. wireless microphones and cameras)
  • intelligent transport systems, which vehicles to communicate with each other and with road infrastructure, giving drivers information critical for safety - and perhaps intervening to prevent or mitigate dangerous incidents
  • communication networks for emergency services
  • the Internet of Things (e.g. for smart grids, smart farming, smart cities, smart homes, industry 4.0)
  • short-range devices based on sensors, spanning from simple garage door openers, alarm systems, to hearing aids and active medical implants, as well as smart health systems and telemedicine

Managing spectrum use

To prevent interference between different users, the generation and transmission of radio waves is regulated by regional and/or national laws, and further coordinated at international level by an international body, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

There are two essential roles in radio spectrum management:

  • Establishing technical conditions for radio spectrum use per spectrum band (also called the spectrum harmonisation process)
  • Assigning radio spectrum to users (i.e. mobile operators, broadcasters, etc). Such assignment may entail spectrum awards and exclusive licencing schemes in certain bands (to avoid risk of interference in certain bands) or licence-exempt ones

Radio spectrum in the EU

EU Member States manage radio spectrum in line with EU level legislation and international agreements. This way, radio spectrum is managed and used across the EU in a coordinated way in view of addressing today’s economic and societal challenges, and reaping new technology opportunities.

The Commission, together with Member States, develops EU-wide spectrum policy and coordinates harmonisation and implementation to support the single market for innovative products and services, as well as reduce the risk of harmful interference between technologies and users.
EU radio spectrum policy has three overarching goals:

  • Harmonising the use of radio spectrum
  • Working towards a more efficient use of spectrum
  • Improving the availability of information about the current use, future plans for use and availability of spectrum

Member States coordinate the use of this essential resource by implementing Commission Decisions at national level. These Decisions are important tools, paving the way towards truly harmonised spectrum allocation throughout the EU. Member State authorities further organise and manage how spectrum is assigned and authorised at national level. This may entail running national spectrum award processes such as such as competitive tendering for spectrum licenses.

 

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