The times they are a-changing

That old question of spectrum has come up again as the EBU recently released a viewpoint EU spectrum policy. Not unnaturally, it represents broadcasters' point of view, but the report stresses the need for universal access to broadband.

While at NAB, I got to play with the Apple iPad, yet to be released outside the United States. It and other wireless devices are transforming the digital society, but they create even more demands on precious spectrum.

Broadcasters were originally allocated swathes of the VHF and UHF spectrum back when the only other contenders were the military, aviation and emergency services. That has all changed now that the public expects all manner of electronic devices to operate untethered by cables and the freedom to source content from anywhere, usually via the Web.

The digital dividend of analog switchoff potentially frees spectrum for other, nonbroadcast operators. The potential losers are the terrestrial broadcasters, rather than cable and satellite operators, plus viewers of these services who choose not to pay the cable and satellite service providers.

This all presents a potential conflict between OTA viewers and the new generation of consumers who look for video content rather than conventional “television” and source content through social media sites, peer exchange of user-generated content, on-demand video, catch-up services — all manner of sources.

Broadcasters have the obvious advantage that they were there first, but looking to the future, is linear television what the upcoming generation still wants?

The contenders for spectrum are fixed and mobile broadband networks. The availability of these services to the public has now become of equal importance to broadcast television. The issue is how to meet the capacity demands for mobile data that devices like the iPad create.

It is becoming apparent that any realistic solution must use a number of delivery mechanisms, combined for the user as a unitary solution. This could include a mix of broadcast, 3G unicast and Wi-Fi, along with a tethered download and store when a fixed connection is available.

The technology exists; the big problem is on the business side. How do you create a seamless experience for services delivered by a mix of operators including broadcasters and wireless platforms? One could well be state-operated, the other a public company. The problems are complicated beyond serving content by the demands of DRM to protect subscription content.

In metropolitan areas, Wi-Fi is one means to deliver connectivity, with some cities well-served and others not. The provision is hardly universal and usually depends upon a mix of public and private provision. Many services are chargeable; some are free.

Telcos have long had the means to connect and bill across national boundaries, and mobile operators allow roaming across boundaries. In contrast, broadcasters operate within national boundaries, and where there is spill from satellite footprints, content rights dictate conditional access to constrain delivery to within the national boundaries.

Smart phones and iPads are here. The demand for broadband spectrum is increasing at a rapid rate, so the problem can only get worse. Are spectrum auctions the solution, and will OTA broadcast suffer? There could well be a time in the near future when “broadcast” is curtailed to free up spectrum for broadband in the interest of the majority. That doesn't mean broadcasting stops; the source just shifts to satellite and cable delivery.

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