Broadcasters looking to world spectrum 2015 conference with trepidation

Sometimes, it is futile and counterproductive to hold out against the tide of change, but other times resistance is essential to avoid losing something of value forever.

The world’s broadcasters believe that their rear-guard action to defend their terrestrial spectrum against marauding cellular operators fits in the latter category, and to a large extent they are right. The case advanced by the mobile broadband camp is that the digital dividend enabled by analogue switch off has liberated spectrum that it needs to meet inexorably rising demand for cellular capacity, driven in large part by online video consumption.

The broadcasters’ response is that they too face increasing capacity demand given the proliferation in content they have to deliver at ever higher resolutions that improvements in compression can only partly alleviate.

They also suspect that cellular operators will never have enough spectrum, and will constantly come back for more until terrestrial TV services are squeezed out of existence. This view will have been reinforced by the events of the last global radio spectrum conference, WRC-12 (World Radiocommunication Conference 2012) held in Geneva early this year, when a group of African and Middle Eastern broadcasters moved to claim a second digital dividend, in other words, a second tranche of the spectrum in the 700MHz range liberated by analogue switch off in their spectrum region, which also includes Europe. This proposal was postponed to the next WRC conference in 2015, but broadcasters, in Europe especially, are fearing that they may lose more spectrum then.

Meanwhile, individual countries are proceeding with auctions of spectrum for 4G/LTE services with implications for digital terrestrial services, such as the UK, where there is still simmering tension between the two camps as communications regulator Ofcom prepares for the resulting reassignment of further spectrum for mobile data services. The regulator says it is seeking a balance between the two sides and promises to guarantee the long-term future of digital terrestrial television (DTT) in the country.

But, Ofcom admits this will require viewers to retune and that some may also need new aerials. Only a month before this announcement of a reduction in DTT spectrum, Ofcom had stated that, as a result of the UK’s completion of analog switch-off, it needed to ensure alternative frequencies were available for the introduction of high-speed mobile broadband before the end of the decade.

This all left the country’s DTT infrastructure provider Arqiva feeling uneasy, arguing that all this change would be unnecessary. Such sentiments are shared by many of Europe’s broadcasters led by the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), which fear there may face another coup attempt by Telcos at WRC-15.

However, the DVB, which has close links with the EBU, is seeking reconciliation by working towards convergence between broadcast and mobile broadband. This is surely inevitable given that the content and services delivered by each are themselves converging. Broadcasters will have to accept invasion of unicast services in to their domain. But, at the same time, the mobile operators will also have to recognize that popular content will require some broadcast or multicast architecture. That may in turn involve accommodation with Wi-Fi as the most suitable last mile technology to avoid congestion at the cellular level for unicast services.

In addition, there will have to be some form of broadcast overlay for delivering popular linear content, for there will never be enough capacity within wireless cells to provide access to this for large numbers of devices on a unicast basis.