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EU will make broadcasters give up spectrum to broadband

European broadcasters are emerging from a period of uncertainty to discover they will have to cede more primary spectrum to mobile broadband operators, but are being offered some concessions over reallocation.

The European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, has been dithering over spectrum policy ever since the surprise decision taken at the World Radio Spectrum Conference (WRC) 2012 to force a second digital dividend out of broadcasters in the spectral region covering Europe, the Middle East and Africa. A group of Middle Eastern and African countries pushed through a commitment to make more spectrum available for mobile broadband in the band around 800MHz in addition to the amount granted in the so called first digital dividend in 2008. At that time, there were variations between member states, but generally 20 percent to 25 percent of the UHF spectrum liberated through analogue switch off was given over to mobile braodband, which was more than the original spectrum allocated for European GSM cellular services.

Broadcasters assumed that was as far as reallocation would go. But, at WRC-12, held in Geneva in January and February 2012, many observers were surprised by an agreement to re-allocate frequencies 694MHz —790MHz for mobile use in Region 1 (Europe, the Middle East and Africa). Regions 2 and 3, covering the Americas and Asia — Pacific respectively, had already agreed in 2007 to include mobile as a primary allocation almost all the way from 600MHz up to 960MHz. At that stage, Region 1 set the lower bound at 790MHz — below that, only broadcasting was permitted.

The African and Middle Eastern countries were therefore able to argue that this new agreement at WRC 12 would simply bring Region 1 into line with the rest of the world, leading to a state of global spectral harmonization and bringing economies of scale and easier international roaming, among other benefits.

The EBU, though, has lobbied against the plan, arguing that it reneges on the earlier agreements around 2008 when the European Commission made it clear that enough spectrum should be reserved for broadcasters to develop advanced HD and 3G services. But now, the Commission seems to be buying the argument that global harmonization can be achieved, and that further improvements in compression and spectral efficiency mean that broadcasters should be able to make do with less bandwidth than had been thought.

As a result, Europe's Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes has told TV broadcasters that they will have to free up another 200MHz of spectrum for mobile operators in addition to the 1GHz already available, as part of an emerging policy. Speaking at the Spectrum Management Conference in Brussels last week, Kroes said she wants to have at least 1200MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband by 2015.

"We should start with the spectrum that is already harmonized, and that already amounts to over 1000MHz,” said Kroes, adding that she wants that to be offered through spectrum awards by 2013.

However Kroes did offer some consolation to broadcasters by suggesting they would not have to pay for the spectrum reallocation that would be needed, and that should ensure broadcasters will not lose significant capacity even if they have less bandwidth to play with. This will involve moving from high-power Multiple Frequency networks to low-power Single Frequency Networks, which will save power and enable more services to be transmitted inside a given spectral band. Coordination at the European level will be needed to achieve this, and the Commission plans to do a spectrum inventory to look at current use and future demand, as part of its spectral planning process.

Kroes said that broadcasters would not have to foot the entire bill for this reallocation of spectrum.

"After all, spectrum below 1GHz is valuable. Mobile operators can hardly expect to get those amazing opportunities for free," she said.
There is clearly plenty for broadcasters to fight for, and scope for more lobbying given this indication that broadcasters will have to pay some of the cost of a spectrum reallocation they do not want. But, Kroes also makes a fundamental point in suggesting that the distinction between broadcast and broadband should come to an end, arguing that current battles are counter-productive.

Kroes called for innovation in spectrum use leading to coexistence and more efficient ways of delivering mixed broadband and broadcast services.

“I want us to reach a consensus on the long-term use of the 700MHz band,” she said. “And, to do that we need to have a discussion on the spectrum needs for broadcasting as a whole, and move away from the old, sterile fight about Broadcasting versus Broadband, and examine more forward-looking scenarios.”

This stance was supported by Cable Europe, part of the European Forum for Spectrum Coexistence, in a white paper called, “Coexistence: The Missing Element in Current Spectrum Policy.” Cable Europe represents cable operators, which are major providers of broadband services and in many cases looking to mobiles networks to extend their footprint. So, this support for the Commission’s position is not surprising. But it suggests that broadcasters have little support for their outright defense of spectrum and are going to have compromise with the mobile invaders of their spectral turf.

Broadcasters do have a valid argument though that unicast is a highly inefficient way of delivering popular linear content over wireless networks, consuming large amounts of spectrum unnecessarily. Irrespective of how spectrum is allocated in future, this will have to be addressed, and here broadcasters do have scope to make their mark by developing technology for efficient delivery of TV services to mobile and handheld devices, whether around the home or on the move. This is precisely the goal of the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) set up by U.S. broadcasters, and European broadcasters need to raise their game here.

There is already the DVB-T2 Lite version of the DVB-T2 second generation digital terrestrial standard being deployed in some European countries to handheld devices. But, OMVC goes further by defining the whole ecosystem for mobile delivery over terrestrial.