UK terrestrial battles mobile

I have just attended the Digital Television Group (DTG) annual summit in London. The group is an industry organization for the UK’s television sector. Members include broadcasters, platform and network operators, broadcast equipment manufacturers, and CE manufacturers, as well as special interest groups. The DTG is known for the D-Book technical specifications covering terrestrial broadcasting in the UK.

The summit included speakers from transmitter networks and broadcasters all the way to YouTube. The session, and the passions it aroused, represented a microcosm of battles being fought out across the world as to who should have use of the UHF spectrum.

There were some passionate arguments for retaining the status quo, and others who saw the development of mobile data representing business opportunities and providing new services for consumers.

The arguments for the status quo were poorly debated and didn’t really stand up to scrutiny. They all revolved around the concept of “public service broadcasting.” This idea dates back to the days when government regarded broadcasting as a dangerous form of mass communication that should be tightly controlled by strict licensing. Broadcasting started back when many countries had nationalized swathes of industries including mining; transport; and post, telegraph and telecommunications (PTT), as well as subsidizing car manufacture, airlines, and defense equipment manufacture. Even today, many states still run broadcast channels, and even the military in some countries.

Although organizations like the EU have presided over a sell-off of state industries, across Europe the old state-funded broadcasters have used their skills as communicators to lobby governments to retain the status quo. The EBU’s very mission is to defend the interests of public service media. Through the concept of public service broadcasting (PSB), they argue to retain their funding and access to spectrum. Strangely, companies providing clean water have been privatized. Which is the public service: the provision of clean drinking water or television entertainment? Some speakers at the summit hinted that the BBC uses the receiver tax, which funds it, to distort the market for other media companies by providing services at no added cost over that tax. This, in turn, creates a view from the public that online is free.

At the summit, there were predictable presentations from many parties, all arguing the PSB excuse, but clearly driven by the need to preserve their jobs and their companies at the expense of that section of the public and industry that want the opening up of mobile data provision, especially in the UHF band. In the UK, PSB channels are available over-the-air, via satellite and cable, and the public has access to OTT catch-up services like iPlayer.

A glance down the roster of 50 channels aired in the UK’s terrestrial multiplexes reveals a handful of PSBs, but the majority of channels can only sensibly be classified as strictly commercial. Several channels are time-shifted, duplicating facilities that can be provided by PVRs or IP-delivered catch-up services.

Was I hearing altruism, or self-interest, from some impassioned speakers? I lean to the latter.

As “generation C” grows up, what will be future demands for TV entertainment? Will delivery be via IP, broadband and mobile, or will the rooftop yagi still reign supreme?

Generation C is all about consumer-generated content, and mobile devices are at the heart of this. I don’t see lean-back viewing of branded channels disappearing, but rather coexisting with the new media platforms that have mushroomed in the last decade. When NBC aired the London Olympics, its YouTube multiplatform viewers also watched more of the linear coverage than other viewers.

Trying to pick a path through a minefield of vested interests, the regulator OFCOM has a simple remit: to make decisions that maximize benefit to the consumer. The task of pleasing everyone is not easy, but that’s what governments have to try to achieve.

David Austerberry, editor