Great spectrum squeeze: OFCOM’s 700MHz handover and key reaction from broadcast, PMSE sectors

There will probably be a spectrum debate until a rump of defiant broadcasters is forced to reenact the Alamo. Looking at their battle with the mobile broadband industry, broadcasters are fighting a foe like a Tesco with its huge land bank. Space (and banked spectrum) represents an opportunity to develop many years hence.

We have seen the Pascal Lamy, RSPG and CEBT reports on spectrum management in quick succession, and then OFCOM CEO ED Richards announced recently “a crucial next step in the development of the UK’s communications infrastructure” — specifically the handover of the 700 MHz band for mobile broadband use from 2022, and possibly from 2020.

To ascertain how issues around the OFCOM plan might play out, SVG Europe spoke to the EBU, Digital UK, and to Sennheiser — for a vital take from the PMSE community.

Growth in mobile data was close to zero

Simon Fell, director of technology and innovation at the EBU, and Darko Ratkaj, the EBU spectrum expert, agreed that the recent OFCOM statement held no surprises.

“The work we did with Lamy was to say we did not think any broadcaster could abandon 700 MHz any earlier than 2020,” said Fell. “Some have gone early but where 700 MHZ is not much used. The majority of big users may push for the later date, and we know in some countries that will be hard to achieve. But in the UK it is in keeping with what they are planning to do anyway.”

Simon Fell copy

Simon Fell: “The space in 600 MHz spectrum which will be taken up by displaced channels moving from 700 MHz later on will cause some problems”

OFCOM does talk about the possible release of valued spectrum from other frequencies, coupled to the questionable estimate that the volume of mobile data will jump 45 times by the time 700MHz changes hands. “Those are just predictions,” said Ratkaj. “Recently published figures from the telecommunication authority of Singapore show that for the last year the growth in mobile data was close to zero. Mobile data will grow, but 80-90% of it will be over WiFi. When it comes to cellular there are no reliable predictions that would confirm any figure by 2030.” Fell liked the land bank analogy. “That is their general ambition,” he said. “For us it is about trying to get the recognition amongst the regulators that broadcasting has got a valuable service offering in that space. If there is anything that has come out of the reports by RSPG and Lamy it is that broadcasting has a role to play below 700 MHz. That is a very important recognition this year.”

Surely broadcasters can use new technology to get more from whatever spectrum they retain?

“Indeed DVB-T2 and HEVC will bring about huge efficiency gains, as will other technologies in research. But at the same time we have an increased demand because of the move to universal HD,” said Ratkaj. “We don’t see a reduction in spectrum demand for DTT, so effectively the constraint for DTT development will be the available spectrum.”

Could the coming of UHD TV services mean the culling of the multiple repeat and shopping channels?

“They make money for somebody somewhere,” said Fell. “The broadcasters think about their own needs and there is little thought about the platform. But in terms of the overall mix of channels to the public no one really does that apart from perhaps Freeview and Freesat.

“Demand will naturally outstrip channels that don’t have any value any more, and other services will spring up to fill that gap. There will be no shortage of demand for TV spectrum, and it is difficult at the moment to see a quality (UHD) service supplanting some of the others whilst they’ve still got a marketplace,” he added.

The issue of compensation for broadcasters forced to re-engineer for migrating to 600 MHz is a live one.

“In the High Level Group output documents that Lamy published you can find an appendix on a transition roadmap which both the broadcast and mobile industry worked on,” said Fell. “It features a really practical guideline on how to take the technology in a country from one type of service to another. And it covers the transition time of the processes you have to go through, like alerting the public.

“Lamy also reflected that due compensation should be considered for broadcasters, but that is down to the country where the work is happening,” he added.

OFCOM has talked about paying for the project to analyse the costs, and has recognised some compensation might be due without discussing the how element.

“What also became clear in the High Level Group discussions was that change would be regulator driven. If it was led by the market it would lead us into a mess, and it would take a much longer time,” said Ratkaj. “So if the regulators want to harmonize release by 2020/22 they ought to somehow help the process.

“It is for each country to implement an adequate and appropriate mechanism in their own market. It has to be a political decision and the money has to be found, but how you implement that per market is a very complicated legal situation.”

A very well defined decision making process exists at the European level, starting with the spectrum committee chaired by the EC and populated by the member states. Political decisions would be executed via the next radio spectrum policy program, which is negotiated within the Commission, the European Council, the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament.

Ratkaj had an additional thought. “People might be interested in the aspect called free to air viewing because effectively what is happening is that part of the spectrum is being taken away from Freeview and being given to Pay Per View. Which ever way it is going to be implemented in the future, as mobile networks, this is hugely relevant – a regularity political decision to give more and more spectrum to the commercial opposition.”

Fell added: “Freeview currently has extra space from OFCOM for the next year or two, but that will be taken back. It is probably why it is working so hard on Freeview Connect. That service opens the door to more channels via IP. In the future you might see a lot of SD services, especially the catch up ones, being delivered over IP. It would be cost effective as long as the broadband network in the country can sustain the traffic.”

Productions will be severely compromised

Musing on the implications of the coming 700 MHz release to mobile broadband to professional PMSE people, Alan March, head of spectrum affairs at Sennheiser UK, said: “Catastrophic. PMSE is classed as a secondary user of spectrum despite both broadcasters and the mobile sector relying on the world class content that is produced using PMSE equipment.

“Without the allocation of access to additional spectrum outside of UHF, professional productions will be severely compromised, production standards will fall, and the consumer will, ultimately, receive an inferior level of content,” he added. “The irony in all of this is that we could end up with a big fat mobile content delivery pipe (the mobile sector freely accepts that what is at the heart of it’s data growth predictions is film and video) with no content of any value to push down it,” he added.

Who then is driving this process? “An unholy alliance comprised of mobile operators, local spectrum administrations, and governments,” said March.

“Mobile operators get spectrum ‘real estate’ that they don’t necessarily need at present, regulators keep themselves busy and governments raise revenue from an industry that is, ordinarily, ruthlessly tax efficient,” he added. “The losers will be ordinary citizens who will have to cope with inferior quality content and deal with increased levels of interference from new mobile services that the general public neither wants, or are willing to pay for.”

March, in QED mood, believes that the broadcast industry needs to flex its muscles.

“To be fair, it is slowly becoming more alive to spectrum issues,” he said. “But will they fight back before that unholy alliance squashes public service, free to air broadcasting and the only way for consumers to receive content will be across a mobile network – for which they will have to pay for? No DTT equals no white spaces, equals no PMSE.” QED.

Underpinning more than £3 billion a year

Digital UK sees different issues. “We believe that clearance of the 700 MHz band for mobile broadband services must be organised so that Freeview retains its current coverage and channel line-up, and that viewers must be fully supported throughout this process,” said a spokesman.

“Neither the UK broadcasters, nor viewers, should bear the cost of any transition, and terrestrial TV must be assured of continued access to alternative airwaves for the long term,” he added. “We are pleased to note that following our response for an earlier OFCOM consultation, it has increased its estimates for the cost of replacing viewers’ aerials and changes at transmitters.”

What is Digital UK’s major worry? Freeview Connect suggests a promising IP direction.

“DTT is the cornerstone of UK broadcasting, delivering a unique range of economic and social benefits through universally available, free-to-air TV. The Freeview proposition at the heart of DTT attracts more viewing than any other platform (it’s used in more than three quarters of homes), underpinning more than £3 billion a year of investment in UK programming, fuelling our creative industries and supporting the UK’s reputation as a global leader in TV production,” said the spokesman.

“The development of a connected service marks the move towards a more hybrid platform offering the best of both broadcasting and IP delivered content — particularly catch-up services, which are increasingly popular. However, the UK Government and OFCOM have acknowledged that DTT will remain the most effective way to ensure the universal reach and impact of public service broadcasting, platform choice and competition until at least 2030,” he added.

At best, clearance of 700MHz will require viewers to retune their Freeview equipment, and some to realign or replace their aerials. What would a decision at the World Radiocommunications Conference in 2015 to give co-primary allocation to mobile in the lower bands (say 600MHz) result in?

“It would create commercial uncertainty and limit the future growth of terrestrial TV, or make it impossible, damaging a vital UK asset. Ultimately, it could start the countdown to the end of DTT altogether. OFCOM has said that its current expectation is to resist co-primary allocation, but it is yet to confirm the UK position on this,” the spokesman said. “We feel that Pascal Lamy’s 20-25-30 recommendation is a broadly sensible approach, as it would provide reassurance for broadcasters and safeguard access to the 470MHz-694MHz band until 2030.

“Despite an undoubted increase in demand for mobile data, there is also still significant uncertainty as to how this will translate into future spectrum requirements, and predictions vary widely. More than 80 per cent of mobile data traffic is currently delivered via WiFi and users of mobile devices like phones and tablets are more likely to use this for streaming video than mobile networks, particularly for longer content,” he added.

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