Broadcaster: Spectrum debate threatens World Cup and Eurovision Song Contest

The European Broadcasting Union's Simon Fell. [EBU]

Mobile phone operators don’t use the spectrum they already have and forcing broadcasters to change the radio frequencies they currently use could hit major spectacles such as the World Cup and Eurovision Song Contest, said Simon Fell of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.

Simon Fell is director of technology and innovation for the EBU, which represents the interests of public broadcasters in Europe. He is also a member of Pascal Lamy’s high level group of operators, broadcasters, stakeholders and associations on the future use of UHF spectrum for TV and wireless broadband.  All wireless communications such as TV and mobile internet travel via radio frequency, known as the spectrum, but the resource is finite, leading to debate over its best use by mobile operators and broadcasters. He spoke to EURACTIV’s deputy news editor James Crisp.

You’re a member of Pascal Lamy’s high level group on the future use of UHF spectrum for TV and wireless broadband. What’s the purpose of the group?

The high level group was established under Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes with Pascal Lamy as chairman and the EU DG Connect people working in the secretariat. It has met four times since the beginning of the year. The original scope was to evaluate the future use of the UHF band in total. It has more or less come down to focusing on 700 MHz in terms of trying to get agreement for possible dates for that to be released for mobile use.

The intent was to get everybody’s point of view so that Pascal Lamy can write a report to for the European Commission. It is all building up towards the World Radio Conference (WRC) 2015 at the end of next year. We work with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) in preparation for such meetings. WRC is a conference that the ITU organises roughly every three to five years. It makes internationally coordinated agreements on frequency allocations to different radiocommunications services with the main objectives to harmonise spectrum use in different parts of the world to avoid interference.

So the Lamy Report will be a series of recommendations?

It is intended as a strategic advice to the Commission on the future use of the UHF band in the EU. The Commission could provide guidance for European regulators that attend such meetings as the WRC. The actual administrations of the countries still decide what is happening within their borders. If they choose to use the entire spectrum they’ve got for TV or mobiles, they can do so.

Initially, the Commission said the report would be out by July. When do you expect it?

I do not know the exact date because we have not been told yet, but it could be soon. Given the nature of EU affairs in the summer, it could be done in the autumn. It is probably more likely for the next few months.

What impact can the spectrum debate have on Europeans?

At the last WRC, the mobile industry proposed that 700MHz spectrum (692MHz-about 790MHz) would be  allocated for co-primary use. That means that after the WRC-15 Conference, administrations can decide whether to assign such spectrum for mobile services or to maintain free to air broadcast television services. At present UHF Spectrum is actively shared between broadcast television services interleaved with PMSE – radio microphones, occasional use microphones and radio services around special events like major sporting events, major theatre events, outdoor concerts and festivals. They (PMSE) currently use spectrum dotted around the broadcast frequencies.

So this could have an impact on coverage of the World Cup or Eurovision?

Well yes. That is the kind of thing predicted by the Programme Making and Special Events industry (PMSE) because to cover, say Glastonbury music festival, or any sporting or political event (that) requires a lot of radio frequencies. It seems that radio, and all the equipment, was designed to be use in that spectrum, so the PMSE industry has already been forced to change some frequencies and buy new equipment. Now they are facing it again.

Will Lamy’s report resolve any of these tensions between mobile operators and broadcasters?

It will give a period of time in which changes could be allowed to happen. The impact is quite apparent on broadcasting. To relinquish any more spectrum is something that is very difficult to do, because it forces us into even less space.

Typically, the mobile industry wants the same band plan everywhere, and that is what will lead to harmonisation. The difficulty is that there is not enough room for broadcast services when that happens. We need due consideration of the costs and impact on the broadcasting industry.

-The digital dividend-

Spectrum was sold in auctions to mobile operators after broadcasters switched from analogue to digital…

The “digital dividend” was accomplished by a coordinated campaign to squeeze digital broadcasting in different countries down to below 800MHz. That meant re-planning and rebuilding. By clearing the 800MHz, broadcasters went to great efforts to squeeze what they do into less space. Digital technology allowed that to happen.

However, at the same time, the governments concerned decided to sell off the 800MHz to mobile broadband services.

Wasn’t it a free source of revenue for governments?

I think to view it as a zero-cost kind of thing is probably wrong. In order to free up frequencies, you need to move to other frequencies that need to be available, and to free them takes cost in the network in terms of re-planning, new aerials for consumers and awareness campaigns to tell the public what to do. So there are a lot of costs on broadcasters to achieve that.

The interesting thing is that mobile operators haven’t fully utilised what they already have since the dividend. The mobile industry has a great deal more spectrum to play with. About 1000 MHz has already been identified for the mobile service in Europe, where they have the capacity to do more. I don’t actually think they have made full use of what they have already got.

Is the internet and mobile broadband killing traditional broadcasting?

Across Europe, linear broadcasting averages about four hours per day. Not everybody in the world has a smartphone. There are 250 million people in Europe who rely on digital terrestrial television as their primary TV. Free-to-air television largely exists primarily on such platforms as digital terrestrial platforms. Regional TV services are easier and cheaper on these platforms.

The majority of viewing on tablets is done via Wi-Fi, which never gets mentioned. Wi-Fi uses an unlicensed spectrum. Let’s say you are out and there is a major news event, then you might watch some news footage on your mobile. But you probably won’t watch a complete Netflix movie on your phone and download it from your network.

Recently [UK broadcaster] ITV had problems supporting the World Cup streaming on their service, because it was so popular on tablets and computer devices. The advice they gave during the competition was to avoid using 3G and 4G, and instead to use Wi-Fi. Why is that? Because it is more reliable, more flexible and it doesn’t cost you anything.

A lot of the policy you hear about spectrum is based on an assumption of exponential demand, when the demand is largely being met by existing platforms.

What are the next big innovations in broadcasting?

I think one of the interesting things is that this World Cup was the first time that you could see experimental broadcast in 4K or ultra-high definition. High-definition is still being rolled out and it will be sometime before Ultra High Definition (UHDTV) will make an appearance, but this is the first time that people have tried transmitting it. At the 2020 Olympics, the Japanese plan to broadcast super high-vision, which is 8K in resolution. UHDTV at 4K is four times the resolution of today’s. The fact is that we have got much higher resolution emissions coming, which will require space, spectrum and possibly additional means of delivery.


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