Spectrum and digital issues

Spectrum Scarcity: the End of Universally Available Public Service Broadcasting?  by VLV Trustee Professor Sylvia Harvey

Since the invention of broadcasting sufficient spectrum  has been provided to enable radio and television signals to reach viewers and listeners in their homes. And, until now, the concept of public service broadcasting or ‘PSB’ in Britain has ensured that a range of channels including BBC1 and 2, ITV1, Channels 4 and 5 have been available to all British homes, free at the point of use, on payment of the Licence Fee costing around £12.50 per month.

However, all Governments are now under pressure to free up spectrum for new services. At present the hungriest of the newcomers appear to be the mobile phone and data providers.  These socially and economically important services have already acquired spectrum in various bands, but seem now to have their eyes firmly fixed on obtaining more of the spectrum that has been most suited to the needs of broadcasters. The rules of this game of competitive acquisition are played out under the eyes of an international referee: the World Radio Conference.

The WRC meets in November 2015 to make key decisions on the next round of allocations. It is likely that, following this conference, broadcasters will be removed from the 700MHz band. In Britain the free-to-air PSBs currently occupy this band. And services here also include all the free channels available via the Freeview platform. Removal will require all users to undertake, at least, extensive re-tuning and may also require purchase of new TV sets or aerials. The changes will bring annoyance, uncertainty, anxiety and additional cost to many. (You can read VLV's contribution to this debate on the Consulations page).

However, things could become significantly worse in later years as the mobile companies have already signalled an interest in using the 470-694 MHz band. If this were to happen it is likely that free-to-air TV would disappear. Viewers would be left with two options for TV reception, both involving significant cost: (1) a cable or satellite subscription service, typically at present via Virgin or BSkyB; (2) reception of the current average usage of 27 hours of TV per week via the internet through fixed or mobile broadband. This mode of distribution would pose an enormous challenge to internet server capacity and is likely to entail a much higher cost to viewers than that currently offered through the monthly “unlimited broadband” tariff.

VLV has made several submissions on these topics to Ofcom (available on the VLV website). Members may wish to raise their concerns about possible loss of citizen entitlement to good quality information - as well as the dis-benefit to consumers - with their Member of Parliament, local or national newspaper, the Chair of Ofcom (Dame Patricia Hodgson)  or the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (the Right Honourable Sajid Javid).

Note: if you experience signal interference on your TV as a consequence of phone masts operating in the 800 MHz band, the company at800 may be able to assist. Unfortunately Ofcom’s ‘Sitefinder’ service has not been up-dated since 2013: http://www.sitefinder.ofcom.org.uk/   The progress of at800 is reported in the Minutes of the ‘4G/TV Co-existence Oversight Board’.


radio 4


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.



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 services 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.

 itv 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