The EBU last week met with its senior member, Italian broadcaster RAI, to discuss the future of audiovisual cooperation across the continent in the wake of the recent WRC-12 radio spectrum conference.
High on the agenda was the fall out after the surprise request at WRC-12 from Arab and African countries for a mobile allocation in the 700MHz range as an extended digital dividend. This was a surprise because this proposal was not on the original agenda, and an issue for Europe because it is part of the same spectrum Region 1 as the African and Middle Eastern countries concerned. Region 1 comprises the whole of Europe plus the part of Russia in Asia, all of Africa, and the Middle East west of the Persian Gulf. It shares some borders with, and therefore often has the same allocations as, Region 3, comprising the rest of Asia along with Australasia. Region 2 is all the Americas, sharing no terrestrial borders with the rest.
The African/Middle Eastern proposal was initially strongly opposed by both the EBU, and the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), which is the coordinating body for European state telecommunications and postal organizations. They argued that this re-allocation would cause considerable problems in Europe, where the 700MHz band is widely used for terrestrial broadcasting, often with long-term licensing arrangements in place. The EBU and CEPT also contended such a re-allocation was too hasty and that there should be time allowed for a careful review of spectrum in the light of advances in technology as well as changing cultural and political objectives, before committing to an approach that would dictate the fate of both mobile and terrestrial services for years to come. The argument here is that through emerging strategies for sharing spectrum and utilizing it more efficiently, it will be possible to meet the conflicting needs of all countries in the region.
But the African and Middle Eastern countries were determined to get this re-allocation through. This was because, unlike Europe, these countries have not deployed terrestrial TV services significantly, and want to devote as much spectrum as possible to mobile telephony, which will also deliver TV services in some cases. Cellular deployments are in some cases more advanced than in Europe, and many countries want to devote as much spectrum as possible to these, with little interest in digital terrestrial.
CEPT, and to an extent the EBU, accepted the importance of these proposals for the countries concerned, and therefore softened their opposition, reaching out for compromise during the later stages of the WRC-12 conference. The compromise finally achieved after long discussions did include allocation of the band 694MHz-790MHz to the mobile service, but only after the next global radio spectrum conference in three years time, WRC-15. There was also agreement to refine the lower edge of the allocation (694MHz), and define technical and regulatory conditions applicable to the mobile service in this band, both to be done at WRC-15.
According to Eric Fournier, chairman of CEPT’s Electronic Communications Committee Conference Preparatory Group, this compromise does take account of the need for European countries to study the issue better before taking a final position on the best suitable allocation and associated regulation. It also, Fournier added, pays due attention to the merits of harmonization, while at the same time it fully preserves the possibility for each country and for CEPT to decide about the best use of this band after 2015.
In other words, it has brought European terrestrial broadcasters some time, with some hope of retaining their spectrum allocation. The bigger, worldwide picture however is of an emerging consensus that 4G mobile services are going to be more valuable and provide on balance greater societal benefits than digital terrestrial.