The loss of the spectrum currently used by digital-terrestrial broadcasting in the UK has moved a step closer to reality following a proposal by communications regulator Ofcom to “make the 700MHz band available for mobile broadband as soon as possible”, with an auction envisaged as early as 2016.
Opening a consultation into the future of 700MHz band, Ofcom stated its belief that “change of use of the…band would deliver significant net benefits to the UK” but insisted that citizens and consumers could continue to benefit from “existing uses of the band” and that “any transitional impacts of change would be manageable”.
Ofcom said it planned to proceed with a change of use of the spectrum “on the earliest possible timescales” subject to discussion with government of the cost and its ability to reach international spectrum planning agreements.
Citing an un-sourced estimate that mobile data demand could be 45 times greater than today by 2030, Ofcom said that it is important to ensure that the mobile sector is “able to meet this increase in demand”. It estimated that the value to the UK of making the 700MHz band available to mobile would be between £900 million (€1.1 billion) and £1.3 billion, or greater if the band was given over to mobile use sooner, while the costs of transition and the loss of value from a change of use would be between £470 million and £580 million.
Ofcom also argued that a number of EU states including France, Sweden and Finland have already decided to allocate the 700MHz band to mobile services.
Ofcom says it will be possible to complete the transition by 2022, with DTT viewers required to retune their sets from 2019.
The regulator expects to award licences in the 700MHz spectrum through an auction process, most likely in or around 2020.
However, the consultation is to seek views on the potential timing of an award and the merits of holding it earlier, possibly in 2016.
In a separate document on the future of free-to-air TV, Ofcom said that the use of the 470-694MHz spectrum – the 600MHz band to which DTT will move as a result of the changes – will be subject to further debate at the next World Radio Conference to be held next year, about whether mobile services should also have access to this spectrum.
“This would not require a further change of use of spectrum from DTT to mobile services, but such a change may become an option for the future,” said Ofcom.
Highlighting the emergence of low-cost pay TV options, smart TV and likely future demand for higher resolution 4K services, Ofcom said that there is “a debate emerging about the potential for internet protocol TV, or IPTV, potentially combined with satellite, to provide a potential long-term alternative to DTT delivery”.
Noting that the take-up of connected TV services by digital-terrestrial TV users “is currently relatively low”, Ofcom called for the industry to develop a new specification on the lines of the current discussion around Freeview Connect.
Ofcom also also noted that a full transition to MPEG-4 and DVB-T2 technology is unlikely to take place before the auction of 700MHz takes place and implicitly admitted that this could involve a cost to consumers.
“To address this, industry-led action to drive the take-up of MPEG4/DVB-T2 equipment will be critical in reducing the cost impact onconsumers to a point where an upgrade might become feasible,” it said.
Among other recommendations, Ofcom said it could be appropriate for DTT receivers with the Freeview brand to be limited to devices capable of receiving MPEG-4/DVB-T2 signals.