Spectrum and digital issues

Why spectrum matters to UK audiences

VLV continues to be concerned with government spectrum policy and how it impacts on the provision of free to air digital television services. We have made numerous submissions to Ofcom, highlighting the need to ensure that UK citizens who enjoy free to air television should not be disadvantaged by changes to UK spectrum policy which is under pressure from mobile phone operators who are greedy for spectrum to increase data delivery via mobiles.

Prior to the end of 2012 when Digital SwitchOver [DSO] was completed the dedicated spectrum for Analogue and Digital Terrestrial TV [DTT] was located between 470 and 862 MHz. Ofcom’s spectrum policy since 2012 has been to divide this band into 4 blocks: “500”, “600”, “700” and “800” MHz bands. Local and international considerations led to the re-allocation of the “800” band to mobile operators for new 4G services which are now operational. To allow this to happen those TV services in the 800 band moved into the lower 500 and 700 bands that remained allocated to DTT. At the same time the “600” band was cleared of all transmissions and left empty. Subsequently Ofcom granted limited life licences to Arqiva in the empty 600 MHz band to provide 2 new HTDV Interim Multiplex signals using newer MPEG-4/DVB-T2 technology.

Further aggressive global demand from the mobile operators since 2012 has led to international agreements that the upper part [above 694 MHz] of the 700 band should also be re-allocated to them so some DTT transmissions will now be moved into the lower bands. After a number of consultations Ofcom have concluded that all but Interim Multiplex DTT services can be fitted into the 500, 600 and Lower 700 spectrum bands [470 to 694MHz]. So Digital Terrestrial TV must now operate in only 224 MHz of bandwidth compared to the original 392. Provision has also been made for PMSE in these bands.

Anticipating that the empty 600MHz band will be used for DTT services, the Interim Multiplexes were moved to the Upper 700 band where the new mobile phone services will be located. This means they are at risk in the future since Ofcom is clearly not able or willing to find room with the other DTT transmissions for them. The loss of these services using more efficient technology will be a major setback for the future evolution of DTT because the number HDTV services will be reduced and the incentive for viewers to acquire new sets equipped with the new technology will also diminish. In light of all this, another major clearance project, to be completed by 2020, has now been planned to remove DTT transmissions from the Upper 700 band. At the very least some viewers will be required to retune their sets as and when their local transmitter, currently operating in the Upper 700 band, is re-engineered. A few viewers may require new aerials and after 2020 some may suffer interference requiring remedial action. During the 800 band clearance interference risk was mitigated by filters which were fitted in the aerial lead and the same solution will be used for 700 clearance. Experience of the 800 clearance suggests that no major unexpected issues will arise and a consultation that closed in July 2017, updated in December, which VLV submitted to has broadly confirmed the planning assumptions. VLV expects that a full viewer support scheme similar to that in place for the 800 clearance will be established.

The Role of International Bodies in Spectrum Regulation

For many years the regulation and technical co-ordination of international telecommunications services and technology and the radio spectrum they employ has been managed through an agency of the United Nations, specifically the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) based in Geneva. Its remit is very wide-ranging over the complete extent of the radio spectrum from Long Waves (LW) to the high Microwave bands. Its agreements and conclusions are published as the Radio Regulations. The broadcasting spectrum is a very small part of this whole.

National regulators, advised by industry partners, are typically the members of many study groups that continually review the use of spectrum in national and regional jurisdictions. However, every 4 years there is a full plenary assembly – the World Radio Conference (WRC) - lasting about a month where all agencies from around the world meet to review progress and to plan the future use of spectrum, specifically new telecommunications services, systems and technology. In recent years the globalisation of services, in particular mobile ones, has required a greater global co-ordination of standards and spectrum usage than ever before.

The next such plenary (WRC-19) is in Geneva in November 2019. Preparations for this event have been progressing for some time and recently Ofcom consulted on its approach to the WRC. VLV responded, urging Ofcom to protect the interests of audiences and broadcasters by resisting further attempts to reallocate broadcasting spectrum to Mobile Data Services (MDS).

The availability of spectrum is vital for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) services, which is the main way universal, free-to-view television is delivered to UK viewers, using the Freeview platform. Availability of this spectrum has been eroded in recent years, due to the demands of the mobile telephone and broadband operators. The agenda for WRC-19 does not include proposals for any further erosion of DTT spectrum in the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) bands, which is a welcome relief. However the issue of the UHF is likely to return for the next WRC in 2023 the agenda for which will be discussed at WRC-19. We and Ofcom must be vigilant that the WRC-19 agenda is not changed and that any scope for UHF reallocation in WRC-23 is removed or at least contained. The health and future prosperity of DTT depends heavily on having enough UHF spectrum to maintain its current and future security and growth and that includes the ability to introduce new technologies at a pace that viewers are able to follow. 

Digital

The UK completed its complete transition to digital television by the end of 2012.  For most VLV members the change from analogue to digital television TV reception happened a few years ago, London was one of the last regions to switch in the spring of 2012.  However the switchover was only totally over when Northern Ireland completed its change on October 10 and 24. This was complicated by the need to ensure that some services from the Irish Republic could also be received. 

However digital transmission and reception  is not static. With analogue our reception remained the same for decades. Unfortunately we must be prepared to retune our TV sets regularly as digital transmission is moved around the spectrum. Some receivers will do this automatically. 

Digital radio

It is government policy that a switch to mostly digital transmission of radio cannot begin until:

  • 50% of all radio listening is via digital platforms; and when national DAB coverage is comparable to FM, and local DAB reaches 90% of the population and all major roads.

At this point the Government will announce a date when the change will take place. The Government and some commentators consider this could be as soon as 2016. An important monitoring report was published in October - Ofcom’s third annual digital [radio] progress report. 

Some key points:

  • The BBC has been working very hard building and installing digital radio transmitters and BBC digital services now reach 94% of homes
  • Local radio is behind with only 66% coverage. An agreement has been reached to fund more transmitters
  • By June 2012, RAJAR data (the industry funded survey of listening patterns) show that almost three in ten (29.5%) of all radio listening hours were to services delivered over a digital platform. This is just a 3.6% increase over a year
  • Only 30% of radio sets purchased in the last year can receive digital radio broadcasts and  50% of the non digital radio owners have no intention of buying one in the next year
  • However, whilst only 65% of digital listening is via a radio, many use online or digital devices or TVs. 

As the Ofcom statistics present such a mixed picture VLV is sceptical that not even the Government’s trigger for a move to digital transmission will be reached any time soon.   Along with many consumer organisations we do not accept the 50% trigger as by then it will be the most vulnerable and most dependent on radio that will not have switched.

"Radio is a vital element in the lives of many citizens of the nations and regions of the UK. The switch from analogue to digital will be a major change for the medium. The switchover should only happen when listeners have sufficient confidence in the change. Implicit should be the evidence that consumers have adopted the new technology in the numbers similar to those that had converted to digital television when switchover began. This figure must be for listeners, not households. A plan using 50% as the trigger is too fast and will risk alienating all strata of society, whilst putting at risk a well trusted media that is vital to many of the most vulnerable and isolated of our fellow citizens.” (VLV evidence to House of Lords Communications Select Committee 2010).

4G SELL OFF - the continuing saga

VLV has always expressed its great concern t hat some 4G mobile ervices will use frequencies which were used for television until digital TV switchover, and are adjacent to the frequencies still used for DTT  signals.  It is very  likely that the new 4G services may interfere with the reception of TV signals, making it difficult, if not impossible, for some households to watch DTT.

After consultation with DCMS ministers and Ofcom, the UK’s major mobile operators have made another step towards speeding up the deployment of 4G mobile phone services in the UK.  The aim is that the new joint venture will ensure viewers can continue to enjoy Freeview when 4G services are introduced.  Latest news from DCMS is that the 4G roll out will start in November with the rebranded EE company. Further 4G roll out will continue in June 2013.   

Culture Secretary Maria Miller  said: “The roll-out of 4G is a huge step forward for mobile broadband services in the UK, and will be incredibly important in driving economic growth. I am pleased that the mobile operators will be working together to ensure that no viewers lose their television services when 4G is rolled out”

EE, Telefónica, O2, Three and Vodafone have now formed a jointly-controlled company – Digital Mobile Spectrum Ltd, formerly known as ‘Mitco’, that will be responsible for ensuring that consumers continue to receive clear Freeview TV signals following the roll out of 4G mobile services.  The new company will be chaired in the interim by Andrew Pinder, Chairman of premium phone services regulator PhonePay Plus and  who was responsible for setting up the popular website DirectGov.  Digital Mobile Spectrum Ltd   will be funded by the successful bidders for 800MHz spectrum in the upcoming auction to a budget of £180 million.  It will be monitored by an independent oversight board which will include broadcasters, mobile telephone companies and, most importantly, consumers.

In response to the new joint venture, Liz Reynolds, Freeview's Strategy Director said: “We’re encouraged that the mobile operators have formed a scheme so quickly to support Freeview homes.  It is of paramount importance viewers are provided with the right level of assistance to minimise interference with their TV service when 4G is introduced next year.  We look forward to working with them in due course.”

International Coverage in UK Public Service Broadcasting - A Report by Phil Harding