Ofcom addresses spectrum future ‘beyond 4G’

Indications that Europe will opt to free parts of the 700MHz band for mobile broadband and new media device use grew this month when UK broadcast and frequency regulator Ofcom announced new plans to utilise the spectrum currently used for digital terrestrial television.

Ofcom says this would prevent a “mobile crunch” that could potentially be caused by growing demand for 4G capacity. Although greater use of 700MHz might enable the expansion of HDTV services, it could also reduce the number of frequencies available for broadcast use, including radio mics, wireless cameras and in-ear monitors.

International plans to open up the 700MHz band were agreed in principle at this year’s World Radio Conference (WRC), which could formally approve the change in 2015. In the UK the 800MHz band is now being cleared and will be auctioned off early next year.

New 4G services are now being planned, with EE, owner of T-Mobile and Orange, already offering access in 11 UK cities. The other mobile companies are due to introduce 4G next year.

Because of this Ofcom is convinced the demand for mobile data will only grow. The regulator’s chief executive, Ed Richards, commented: “Within the coming months we will hold the UK’s largest-ever auction of mobile spectrum for 4G. However, that may not be enough to meet consumers’ future data demands, which is why we are already making significant efforts to prepare to go beyond 4G. Our plans are designed to avoid a ‘capacity crunch’, ensuring that the UK’s mobile infrastructure can continue to support the inescapable growth in consumer demand and economic growth more generally.”

Ofcom says it will guarantee the future of digital terrestrial TV (DTT) by making alternative frequencies available when the new mobile broadband services comes into operation at the end of this decade.

If 700MHz is deployed for mobile broadband, the majority of UK viewers would have to retune their TV equipment. In the most extreme cases people would have to replace their roof aerials.

Charles Constable, chair of Freeview, the UK DTT platform, comments: “Despite its enduring popularity, television has been the poor relation in terms of spectrum allocation for the development of new services. Making this unused spectrum available will further enhance the HD channels offered on Freeview, giving something back to millions of viewers and encouraging a new era of HD content. However, Ofcom has still yet to make the case to justify today’s proposed long term changes to allocate more future spectrum to mobile use, especially given the disruption they will cause to Freeview viewers.”

Any changes to 700MHz could also have severe consequences for users of radio mics and in-ear monitors in the PMSE (programme makers and special events) sector. Alan March, spokesman for industry group BEIRG (British Entertainment Industry Radio Group), says putting mobile broadband into 700MHz would mean “another 100MHz of spectrum would be gone and unavailable for PMSE. We’ve had the erosion of 800MHz and now maybe 700MHz. This is all happening now and I don’t know why broadcasters aren’t more animated about it.”

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