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DTT may be victim of Europe's first radio spectrum policy

It looks like mobile services will gain in Europe at the expense of digital terrestrial over the coming decade as the region's first radio spectrum policy undergoes final consultation before likely adoption at the end of 2011. The policy will align radio spectrum allocation across Europe to avoid interference between services in neighbouring regions operating in overlapping frequencies, and also to pursue the European Union's (EU) 2020 Digital Agenda spanning the whole field of electronic communications. The first so called Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP) will be based on draft proposals set out by the European Commission, which is the EU's governing body, in September 2010, and this has since received strong support from most member countries.

The proposal, which aims to establish a five-year programme to promote efficient radio spectrum management, specifies that sufficient frequency bands are made available by 2013 for wireless broadband. This is to help the EU fulfill its commitments in the Digital Agenda for Europe to give every European access to basic broadband by 2013, and then ultrafast broadband by 2020. This is where the conflict with the EBU over DTT arises, for the regulator argues the EU also has an obligation to ensure that at least 98 percent of the population have access to universal low-cost TV services. Since there is no way that fiber or sufficiently fast copper wires will reach that proportion of Europe's citizens even by 2020, either satellite or DTT will have to fill the breach. Although there are free-to-air satellite services such as Freesat, the joint venture between the BBC and ITV in the UK, these still require a satellite dish and are unlikely to be replicated all over Europe. This leaves DTT as the final fallback transmission medium for universal coverage, according to the EBU.

The EBU also argues that universality is vital for national security, and that the terrestrial platform is the only reliable channel for authorities to inform the public in the event of emergencies and natural disasters. People should not be forced to subscribe to satellite or cable services should terrestrial TV be unable to continue offering high-quality programming, sufficient information and good access services.

The EBU goes on to assert that terrestrial broadcasting needs to have sufficient spectrum to innovate, as broadcasters need more frequency room to recreate their packages via ever higher resolution versions of HDTV, never mind 3-D TV. That however is a slightly different argument than proposing that DTT merely retains its capability of delivering basic services and the ability to operate as an emergency channel.

But the omens are not good. In effect, DTT has been on the defensive ever since the digital dividend was first proposed in the UK in 2003, with other European countries following suit. The digital dividend is a portion of spectrum around 800MHz freed up by the switch off of analogues services, which consume more bandwidth per channel than their digital successors. The EU in its proposal for the RSPP has argued that the 800MHz band is ideally suited for wireless broadband services, and calls for analogue switch off to be completed in all European countries by the beginning of 2012 so that the digital dividend can be reallocated from these. But the EBU disagrees, arguing that wireless will make inefficient use of this spectrum and is unsuitable for delivering broadcast services to rural areas.

However, the EU suggests that over time the spectrum below 800MHz could be reallocated from DTT to broadcast services on top of the zone around 800MHz released as the digital dividend. The EBU appears to have conceded loss of the digital dividend but insists that the zone below that should be non-negotiable and conserved for DTT at all costs.

The EBU also advances a social economic argument, by pointing out that digital terrestrial distribution has been financed by payers of the TV licences required in many European countries to receive, in principle, any TV services. Whether this argument will carry much weight remains to be seen, but at least the battle lines have been drawn. The smart money is on DTT having to manage with a diminishing amount of spectrum in years to come.