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EC wants no new MPEG-2 after 2012

Using digital switchover in 2012 as a cut-off point after which no new MPEG-2-based digital services will be launched is one of the measures being considered by the European Commission to ensure the efficient use of so-called ‘digital dividend’ spectrum.

Delivering the opening keynote at Informa’s Digital Switchover Strategies summit in London yesterday, Philippe Lefebvre, the EC’s director-general, information society and media, said that wireless applications and broadcast TV would be the two main uses of UHF spectrum in the post-switchover world. However, while wireless operators that have to bid for spectrum in open auctions had a natural incentive to ensure that it is used efficiently, broadcasters do not, he said.

“For broadcasters it’s not the same because they often get [the spectrum] at below opportunity cost,” he said. “If you move from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 you have costs but no benefits to broadcasters – it’s others who will benefit. There is no natural incentive. We want to see how to create this incentive.”

While the EC did not want to “force people to move”, he said, it would consider proposing a series of initiatives to encourage broadcasters to make the move to MPEG-4. A cut-off date was necessary in order to give time to phase out legacy equipment. “If members plan to move to second-generation systems they need to include MPEG-4 and so on in any equipment supplied three to four years before it happens in order to avoid [the problem of] legacy systems,” said Lefebvre. “If we do this we could move to more efficient broadcast systems.” While this was not yet official EC policy, Lefebvre said that “creating further legacy beyond 2012 in terms of MPEG-2 would not in my mind make sense”. Migration of users of existing legacy equipment to MPEG-4 could be eased, he suggested, by a systems of subsidies for new devices, although these “have to be compatible with state aid rules”.

He said that developing a strategy for migration to MPEG-4 would be a key topic of debate for the Commission this year.

In relation to the use of digital dividend spectrum, Lefebvre referred to proposals that have emerged following a study by Analysys Mason, DotEcon and Hogan & Hartson last year on the implications of different spectrum scenarios. The Commission, he said, had stepped back from some of the more radical ideas to emerge from the study and had recommended the mandating of only the so-called 800MHz sub-band (790-862MHz) as digital dividend spectrum. Unlike the authors of the study, who had called for this to be mandated for wireless broadband, the Commission has proposed that this be left to individual member states.

Commission recommendation 2009/848/EC calls for the completion of analogue switch-off in 2012 and supports harmonisation of the 800MHz sub-band via voluntary agreement. Another document, COM/2009/586, proposes a review of the voluntary approach that could be triggered by failure to meet certain criteria, which will be put to the European Parliament. Lefebvre said that the aim was to create a “consistent framework” in the form of a radio spectrum policy programme that would be in place by the end of the first half of this year.

Referring to the likelihood or otherwise of member states meeting the 2012 switchover deadline, Lefebvre identified Poland as the chief laggard. “It’s just one member state, and Poland has announced it will cover the whole country by 2012 with digital services,” he said, adding that he hoped the Commsssion’s deadline would have a “psychological effect” on member states.