Time to stop salami-slicing TV airwaves

Time to stop salami-slicing TV airwaves

by Jonathan Thompson, Chief Executive, Digital UK

posted on July 11, 2017

Digital terrestrial television (DTT) remains one of the most widely used distribution platforms for TV in the UK, whether under the Freeview brand or as the broadcast TV service from YouView, Now TV and others.

Getting Freeview to the 19 million UK homes that watch it relies on UHF spectrum -  the airwaves over which TV signals are broadcast. And as many reading this will be aware, we’ve been steadily reducing the amount of spectrum we use for broadcasting to help meet growing demand for mobile broadband capacity. This summer, we’re embarking on a three-year process of clearing Freeview from the 700MHz band which will eventually be auctioned for mobile use.

The next global decision about whether to earmark even more broadcasting spectrum for mobile has been deferred to the World Radio Communications Conference in 2023, but the warm up to that debate is already starting in various international fora.

For me, there are three principles that should govern how we conduct this debate:

o    First, we must recognise the growing need for spectrum to support new mobile services and better coverage, which deliver important economic and social benefits

o    Secondly, in an era when growing demand for spectrum outweighs its limited supply, all users must demonstrate they are using spectrum efficiently

o    Spectrum policy must strive for the right balance between meeting new demand for extra spectrum while respecting the needs and legitimate expectations of existing users


Of course, broadcasters must also recognise the profound change in how television is being distributed and consumed, while not losing sight of the fact that the majority of viewing will take place over broadcast networks for many years to come. Sustaining our existing broadcast ecology while developing our broadband networks guarantees robust, resilient distribution of TV while also ensuring universal access to public service broadcasting, free from control by powerful intermediaries. Secure access to spectrum therefore remains not just important but critical to the future of television.

This is why we welcome the recent decision made by the European Commission on the future use of UHF spectrum for both broadcasting and mobile. From early debates, which were pretty polarised, we have reached a pragmatic and sensible solution, which offers:

o    More spectrum for mobile

o    A clear timeline for the release of the 700MHz band

o    A step closer to the target of high speed broadband for everyone by 2020

o    And reasonable certainty on spectrum access for DTT and PMSE to at least 2030

Like all good trade-offs, this settlement creates both opportunities and challenges. No one should underestimate the value of reasonable spectrum certainty for broadcasting to 2030.  The decision fosters confidence in the future of Freeview and in our plans to develop a new generation of connected TVs which will extend access to on-demand TV and transform the viewing experience for millions of viewers.

But equally, no one should gloss over the real world cost and complexity of clearing Freeview from the 700MHz band. Over the next three years it will require thousands of TV masts across Europe to be re-engineered, millions of viewers to retune their TV equipment and tax-payers to foot a bill running to billions of Euros.

So while there will inevitably be an ongoing debate about competing spectrum needs, we should seriously question the costs and benefits of a further round of salami slicing in the UHF band. It is worth noting that by 2020, broadcasting will have released 40 per cent of the spectrum it uses while still expanding the offer for viewers, both linear and on-demand. Mobile’s UHF spectrum holdings, meanwhile, will have tripled over the same period. Set against this backdrop, and a climate of uncertain demand and diminishing returns from spectrum auctions, further costly and complex reallocations of spectrum should be the last, not the first resort.

This blog is an extract from Jonathan Thompson's comments to a Westminster eForum on Priorities for UK Spectrum Policy – 6 July 2017.

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