Switzerland deals with cantons’ moratoria on 5G networks

In February 2019, Switzerland successfully distributed attractive frequencies for the next generation mobile broadband networks. Operators have been preparing themselves for the launch of 5G as early as possible. However, some cantons have imposed moratoria for construction of 5G networks due to health concerns.

Following the 5G auction, which took only eight working days and 29 bidding rounds (from 29 January to 7 February 2019), the state treasury’s proceeds from three mobile operators totalled nearly CHF 380 million. The aim of the auction was not to maximise the proceeds but rather efficiently distribute the spectrum. To meet this objective, the regulator ComCom had chosen Clock Auction as the auction’s format and applied spectrum caps so that mobile operators could acquire a broad scope of frequencies at an affordable price.

In the multi-band auction, 15-year licences for frequencies in the bands 700 MHz (formerly used for TV broadcasting and released because of the so-called second digital dividend), 1400 MHz and 3500 MHz were awarded.

Alongside the three MNOs – Swisscom, Salt and Sunrise, there was a fourth bidder Dense Air Ltd., which eventually has not gained any spectrum.

Five frequency blocks (5 MHz each) in the bands 2600 MHz, 700 MHz and 1400 MHz remained unsold. In the 1400 MHz band, the spectrum is planned for the so-called supplementary downlink, which in future could be used for increased capacity when downloading data. The confederation will auction these again later.

The proceeds from the three operators were as follows:

  • Salt: CHF 94.5 million;
  • Sunrise: CHF 89.2 million;
  • Swisscom: CHF 195.6 million;

All of them have ambitious plans with 5G. Sunrise was the first in the country to launch the 5G network in 150 cities on 04 April and Swisscom followed with 102 locations in the first 54 cities on 17 April.

Despite Switzerland is one of the few countries, together with e. g. Poland in Europe, with even stricter health standards for protection against non-ionizing radiation than is currently set by ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection), the worries of the local public about potentially harmful health effects of the electromagnetic radiation have been growing. The concerns have grown to a point when cantons and municipalities have decided to temporarily ban the construction of 5G networks until there are results available of an in-depth scientific research into the 5G network’s implications for human health.

The cantons of Geneva, Jura and Vaud have already introduced, or are preparing to introduce, 5G moratoria. Also in Bern, St. Gallen, Schwyz, Luzern, Schaffhausen, Graubunden and Aargau similar initiatives are discussed or have already been submitted. There is also a local opposition in municipalities, e. g. in Hellikon, the inhabitants collect signatures under the petition against a 5G antenna.

The moratoria, however, open several legal questions. One of them is the competence of local and regional authorities to deal with issues related to health protection from non-ionizing radiation. This responsibility is vested in authorities at the national level, as has also been confirmed jointly by the Ministry of Environment (Bafu) and the Federal Office for Communication (Bakom), as competent federal-level authorities.

Another implication is that the auction winners not only have the right to start using the awarded frequencies, but based on their licences they are also obliged to start providing services on the new frequencies within certain deadline. The moratoria of the cantons pose an obstacle for the operators to comply with the operators’ rights and obligations, so there is a threat of legal disputes.

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