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EBU tries to take the heat out of debate between mobile, terrestrial

Radio spectrum has become the single most important field of influence for policy makers and regulators in both the terrestrial broadcast and mobile telephony sectors, amplified by the impact of digital switchover. This has led to tensions between digital terrestrial broadcasters and mobile operators that have threatened to boil over in Europe particularly, where the large number of relatively densely populated countries with their own distinct languages and services requires regulation at both a national and continent-wide level.

Europe can draw comfort from the success of its cooperative effort on the GSM cellular standard in the 1990s which gave its countries the edge in the emerging mobile telephony market. Now it must replicate this success while reconciling competing claims for spectrum from the digital terrestrial and mobile camps. The European Union set out its stall in September 2010 when its governing body, the European Commission, proposed the first Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP) for all member states. The objective is to coordinate future spectrum allocation and management across all member states, which is desirable for two reasons, to conform with the EU's single market objective by making it easier for people to work across borders, and to achieve economies of scale for manufacturers of equipment, avoiding the need to develop different versions for each country operating at a variety of frequencies.

But this of itself does not resolve the division of spectrum between terrestrial and mobile services. The digital terrestrial camp originally argued it should obtain the full benefit of analogue switch off since that spectrum had originally been allocated to them. Now though even terrestrial diehards admit some spectrum will have to be lost, and meanwhile the EBU is arguing that such debate is counterproductive and irrelevant to the needs of consumers who just want spectrum to deliver the services they want and do not care whether it comes over DTT or 3G, or for that matter Wi-Fi.

The IBC panel gave hints of cooperation to come, with representatives from the broadcast, mobile telephony and regulatory camps all agreeing that spectrum can and should be optimised for all parties. Bernard Pauchon, chair of Broadcast Networks Europe, which represents EBU constituents in maintaining an efficient and fair regulatory environment, was convinced that the right solution for spectrum management lies in cooperation. He called for optimization of spectrum management, taking into account technical, economical and social aspects, and suggested this should be the purpose of the still-evolving EU Radio Spectrum Policy Programme.

There are though plenty of issues to be resolved. One is how to reconcile the fact that not all spectrum is equal since properties such as range, robustness, and indoor penetration vary with frequency. The sweet spot is regarded as being the 800MHz spectrum, which historically has been dedicated to analogue terrestrial broadcasting. Many European countries plan to reallocate this to mobile services. But as Ofcom the UK telecoms regulator has pointed out, this will bring mobile services into close spectral proximity with digital terrestrial broadcast, creating potential for interference.

Ofcom has proposed setting up an implementation body to manage the delivery of measures to mitigate this interference. This will be a single body that will collect views from, and provide information to, consumers, broadcasters, and also new 800MHz licensees which will presumably be mobile operators. Such measures could include filters for DTT consumer equipment, filters for mobile base stations, changes to aerials including reorientation and cross polarisation, changes to platforms, and reductions in mobile base station power output.

This raises another question, which is who will pay for this work and the implementation body itself. Ofcom is quite unequivocal on this point – it should be the new licensees rather than the incumbent digital terrestrial operators. Whether this will do much to mollify operators facing loss of a prime piece of their spectral real estate remains to be seen.

Other issues include the continuing question of what to do with unlicensed spectrum, notably in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz ranges used for Wi-Fi given the increasingly blanket coverage this provides in many parts of Europe. Perhaps the answer is that nothing should be done about it, since the moment a spectral band is licensed, costs have to be borne and control has to be imposed, which constricts a field dedicated to allowing mobility and access within the range of a wired broadband connection point, rather than a network grid in its own right. The IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standards have themselves evolved to take care reasonably well of the interference that occurs among multiple Wi-Fi networks, whether public hotspots or in the home.