by Jon Steel, Director of Communications
posted on December 17th, 2015
It would be tempting for any keen followers of the WRC-15 process, let alone those who spent four weeks of long days and late nights locked in a conference centre in Geneva, to heave a well-earned sigh of relief now the process has concluded.
Around 4,000 people representing more than 160 countries gathered to discuss new rules for spectrum use, ranging from global flight tracking to the future of the 'leap second'. One of the most challenging subjects on the agenda was the identification of new airwaves to feed our growing appetite for watching video on smartphones and tablets. Spectrum vital to the future of digital terrestrial services like Freeview was up for grabs and firmly in the sights of a US led alliance which fought to the last moments of the conference to change the regulations in favour of mobile use.
In the end, the majority of countries held firm in their view that Freeview and its equivalents elsewhere will continue to play a vital role for many years to come and need reasonable certainty over access to spectrum. Across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, huge investment is being made in developing terrestrial networks, whether it's the completion of switchover to all digital services or creating the next generation of hybrid IP TVs and boxes. Sensibly, the conference not only agreed to reserve airwaves for TV but also to park further discussion on this topic until the next-but-one conference in 2023.
Job done? At many levels, an emphatic yes. This landmark decision provides the stable environment necessary for countries such as the UK to take terrestrial TV to the next level. Recent innovations such as Freeview Play, providing subscription-free access to the most popular catch up services, require long term investment decisions to ensure everyone benefits from the greater choice and flexibility of connected television.
But elsewhere in the forest, the debate is likely to continue. Some policy makers continue to wish their way towards a world in which everything we watch is delivered over broadband or mobile networks, even though no one can explain quite how or when this can be achieved in the foreseeable future. Interestingly, the European Commission, while championing DTT as the 'backbone' of the European system is simultaneously consulting on options for future uses of TV airwaves, including opening up the whole lot for mobile as soon as 2020. Other ideas floating in the ether include trying to find ways for TV and mobile signals to share the same spectrum and even using LTE networks to deliver TV – wonderful in theory but nobody has quite addressed the risk of clashing signals and serious interference and the massive cost of transition to the new devices and network infrastructure required. This even has some technophiles looking uncomfortable when they think through the practicalities.
At least part of the problem is a misplaced belief that terrestrial broadcasting is slightly old fashioned. Yes, it's been around for a while but the truth is, it's never stopped evolving. Today, it's a vital plank of our digital infrastructure built on the billion pound investment of digital switchover, completed just three years ago. It's the only network which achieves universal UK coverage and delivers more video content to more people than any other service while also adapting to embrace broadband delivery as a complement broadcast. Crucially, it's the bedrock of free-to-air, public service television and remains hugely popular with the people who matter most…the viewers. Oh yes, and there's no spinning wheel of death when you switch it on.
So sighs of relief, yes, complacency, no. The threat of a bad WRC outcome has been averted for the moment but plenty of challenges for Freeview remain, not least a continuing need to persuade policy makers that the future – for the moment at least – does not demand a binary choice between broadcast and IP, but calls for a blend of both. The popularity of Freeview makes it uniquely placed to deliver this hybrid approach, ensuring everyone shares in the benefits of connected viewing – just as it did with driving take-up of digital television a decade ago. With an Ofcom report last week showing that UK viewers lead the world in demand for online TV, there's never been a better time for Freeview Play to make its mark.
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