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Spectrum clash: the reallocation of 700Mhz

Spectrum-imageThe Europe-wide reallocation of 700MHz spectrum from broadcast to mobile broadband is set to be confirmed at WRC-15 later this year, but what will its clearance and the possibility of further spectrum reallocation mean for the future of digital terrestrial television? Andy McDonald reports.

The World Radiocommunications Conference 2012 (WRC-12) set the scene for a major reallocation of spectrum that is set to alter digital terrestrial broadcasting throughout Europe. With the decision made to reallocate the 700MHz band from terrestrial broadcast to mobile broadband applications, the intervening three years has highlighted an ideological clash between those representing the broadcasting and the mobile sectors about what the best use of this spectrum is.

With WRC-15 to take place in Geneva, Switzerland this November, the final details of the 700MHz spectrum harmonisation plans are due to be put in place. However, with further reallocation in the lower frequency band of 470MHz-694MHz up for discussion, opinion differs sharply on the best use of spectrum going forward and what the implications of this are for the future of digital terrestrial television (DTT).

Broadcast vs. mobile

In September last year, Pascal Lamy, the European Commission’s chairman of the high level group on the future of the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) spectrum, issued a report on the use of the UHF band. As part of a set of recommendations, the Lamy report said that the 700MHz band (694-790MHz) should be dedicated to wireless broadband across Europe by 2020 – give or take two years.

It also said that current use of the 470-694MHz band should be safeguarded until 2030 to provide “regulatory security and stability for terrestrial broadcasters” with a review by 2025 to assess UHF spectrum technology and market developments.

On publication of the report, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which represents the interests of public broadcasters in Europe, welcomed the recommendation that the EU safeguard access to spectrum below 700MHz for DTT, but voiced concerns that 2020, plus-or-minus two-years, timescale for the release of the 700MHz band would not give broadcasters and viewers enough time to adapt to the new spectrum arrangements.

By contrast, the GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide argued that the 2020 timeframe for 700MHz reallocation was not fast enough, suggesting that EU member states should have flexibility to move sooner, “preferably between 2018 and 2020 and potentially earlier” to meet the “sustained growth” in mobile data traffic.

As for the Lamy report’s recommendations on the sub-700MHz band, the GSMA argued that not allowing mobile access to this spectrum “could put Europe at a competitive disadvantage compared to other regions” and called the review of the sub-700MHz band to take place no later than 2020.

Discussing the reallocation of the 700MHz band, GSMA’s head of spectrum, Brett Tarnutzer, argues that the “bottom line” is that more spectrum is needed to keep pace of consumer needs in an increasingly mobile world.

“We’re seeing demand for mobile services, data and video grow at such a high rate. We need to identify more spectrum for mobile to meet those needs. The UHF band is particularly good at meeting those needs for consumers and so this is really a chance for the mobile operators to be able to expand their spectrum portfolio in a way that can meet consumer demand,” says Tarnutzer.

Citing bandwidth-intensive services like mobile video, Tarnutzer, who joined the GSMA earlier this year from the wireless telco division of the US Federal Communications Commission, says that more spectrum allocation will allow services to grow and reduce network congestion. He compares the situation to cars on a highway: “This is a way to add more lanes to the highway to be able to manage that traffic.”

Herman Schepers, the GSMA’s senior director of long-term spectrum, and head of the organisation’s WRC-15 efforts, claims that, particularly with the uptake of LTE, “Europe is actually falling behind” compared to countries like the US and South Korea. “For Europe, it’s vital to make the 700MHz band available for mobile, particularly if the 800MHz band is going to reach full capacity,” he says, predicting this will happen in the coming years.

Certainly the rise of mobile data use is supported by numerous research reports. An Ericsson mobility study, released earlier this year to coincide with Mobile World Congress, predicted that mobile video traffic in the next six years will be around 17 times that of the last six years. Total mobile data traffic, it said, is expected to rise at a compound annual growth rate of around 40% and in 2020 smartphones alone will generate five times the total amount of mobile traffic as today.

However, not everyone is convinced that taking spectrum, at the expense of the broadcast industry, is the way for the mobile industry to adjust to changing consumption patterns and data use. Simon Fell, director of technology and innovation at the EBU, claims that while the GSMA is “heavily involved in pushing this agenda,” he is not particularly convinced by the central premise that the mobile industry has a more pressing need for spectrum than the broadcast space.

“We have no visibility at all of how they [the mobile industry] have deployed 800MHz yet. They have 1800MHz, they’ve just been given 3.5GHz, they’ve got capacity in [the] L-Band, I think, that’s just been released in Europe. So there’s capacity all over the place and there’s no visibility at all of how they’re using it,” says Fell.

He says that while there is a “mantra” that the mobile industry needs more capacity, “we know for a fact that 80% of the traffic for mobile broadband is carried to those devices via WiFi wherever possible, which has nothing to do with the mobile operation in most cases. So there’s a lot of confusion and mis-marketing of the message there.”

German EBU member Roland Beutler, who works on programme distribution at regional public broadcasting corporation Südwestrundfunk (SWR) agrees. With most mobile video consumed indoors, in proximity to WiFi hotspots, he says, there is a question mark over the need for LTE or 5G to support demand.

For Beutler, spectrum reallocation support from regulators and politicians equates to “propaganda – I would not call it lobbying.” He claims that with public service broadcasting – subsidised by public money – still strong in most European countries, broadcasting is simply “not a cash cow” in the same way as the mobile sector.

“If any of the mobile network operators or the manufacturers come to politicians and say ‘look, this is what we have in mind,’ and say ‘there’s a turnover of billions and billions and billions’ and ‘there’s jobs around’, then it’s easy to understand why politicians that want to be re-elected just go for it. That’s basically my take on it,” says Beutler.

The European picture

While Beutler maintains that “from a broadcaster’s perspective,” the 700MHz reallocation is “certainly not a good idea,” UK broadcast regulator Ofcom claims that making the 700MHz band available for mobile services will “generate significant benefits for the UK.”

Mark Caines, Ofcom’s director of broadcasting, space and propagation, lists three main reasons for this: “First, the demand for mobile services is growing significantly – to the extent that mobile needs more spectrum. Second, the signals carried in the 700MHz band travel over large areas while carrying high capacity data, making it ideal for both broadcast TV and mobile data use. Finally, most of the world already uses – or plans to use – the band for mobile, so equipment is readily available and benefits from economies of scale,” he says.

Though the wheels are already well in motion for 700MHz band clearance to take place across Europe, the timing and implementation of this will be far from uniform. In the UK, Ofcom has indicated that it believes “the beginning of 2022” – though potentially up to two years sooner – is as early as it can practically make the band available nationally for mobile.

“This will mean changes to infrastructure from 2016-17 and consumers retuning their TVs in 2019-21,” says Caines. “We expect the changes to DTT infrastructure will take place on a staggered, region-by-region basis. We’ll explore whether there’s scope to make the band available for mobile data early in the regions which change frequencies first.”

Fell from the EBU says: “Countries like Spain and Italy and the UK will be at the later end of things, I would have thought. Other countries that don’t make so much use of DTT will be quicker than that. I think everybody in Europe on the mobile side would like to see a uniform date, but it might be very hard to achieve because it’s down to the individual rate of progress of countries. There’s a lot of physical work to do.”

Technical challenges

He points out that, from the information already released by various European countries, widely differing timetables are being pursued. Germany’s 700MHz spectrum auction got underway in late May 2015, with transition expected by around mid-2018. Sweden’s government has indicated that it expects 700MHz to be clear for mobile by the beginning of April 2017, but has not yet set an auction date, while France has its sights on an auction this year with clearance to follow by the end of 2019.

“The UK says it will be 2022 before they’ll be ready. We think Italy’s ambition is the same. Belgium and Norway have not announced an auction date yet, they’re just consulting,” says Fell. “Hopefully they will announce something at WRC-15 so people can get some clarity.”

Arqiva will manage technical adjustments for the UK’s 700MHz clearance.

Arqiva will manage technical adjustments for the UK’s 700MHz clearance.

Laurie Patten is strategy director for TV and radio at British broadcast infrastructure company Arqiva, which will work behind the scenes to make the technical adjustments needed for the UK’s 700MHz clearance. He says that the spectrum reallocation will be a “major engineering programme similar to what we went through with digital switchover” and requires “careful planning” to ensure viewers are not adversely impacted.

“Effectively, [with] each [transmission] tower around the country you have to move the antennas to different frequencies. Some of those antennas will be able to effectively manage that transition, others won’t have been built to manage,” says Patten, who adds temporary masts may also be needed in some areas for a smooth transition to take place.

Patten says that there is also currently “a lot of work going on at the international level to agree co-ordination for how you can use the sub-694MHz band going forwards.” This frequency plan requires close consideration and agreement between countries about which frequencies to use in border areas, or in the case of the UK some coastal locations – for instance Dover, as it is so close to France.

“You have to co-ordinate, particularly in those coastal areas, to make sure that you’re not both trying to use the same channel – that has to be negotiated. It can have ripple effects, so if you choose a certain frequency, they [France] can’t choose a certain frequency. That may have a knock-on impact for what they have to negotiate with countries, which aren’t necessarily neighbouring the UK. So it can get quite complex,” says Patten.

The technical aspects of clearing the bandwidth also promises to be complicated and costly. In March this year, the UK government confirmed that it will allocate up to £600 million (€840 million) to support the change of use of the 700MHz spectrum.

In a policy paper on ‘digital communications infrastructure strategy’ to accompany the budget, the government said the funds will support infrastructure costs, including “support to consumers where appropriate, and retuning broadcast transmitters to enable broadcasters to move into a lower frequency.”

In a statement to DTVE, a spokesperson for the BBC said that the spectrum clearance “carries an amount of risk to disruption to our services as it will involve changing a large number of transmitter antennas.”

Simon Gauntlett, chief technology officer of industry body the Digital TV Group (DTG), meanwhile agrees that the clearance is “not a simple thing, it’s not just a case of flicking a switch.”

Ofcom claims that the vast majority of UK viewers will only need to carry out “a simple retune of existing TV equipment” following the spectrum move. However, it concedes that a “very small minority of households – about 0.5% – might need to change their roof-top aerials – although this is unlikely to be necessary before 2019.” Perhaps more concerning for broadcasters like the BBC is the pressure on broadcasting that will result from the 700MHz spectrum clearance. “The current commercial HD multiplexes which carry some of the BBC’s HD services will have to close during clearance, with no alternative capacity for those services being available,” said a BBC spokesperson.

The broadcaster also points out that spectrum for programme-making and special events (PMSE) will be reduced, “making major events harder to cover” – though discussions with Ofcom about making new frequency bands available for PMSE are currently underway.

Broadcast efficiency

Ofcom says it remains “absolutely committed to the future of digital terrestrial TV,” but admits that services on the UK’s two interim multiplexes – which were licensed in 2013 in addition to the core six UK national multiplexes ahead of a potential clearance of the 700MHz band – may not all be able to continue on the DTT platform following the spectrum release.

“We believe advances in technology mean most of the channels carried on those two multiplexes will be able to continue using the six national multiplexes,” says Ofcom’s Caines. Yet, in spite of this, the UK is not tying DTT’s move to the sub-700MHz band with a planned switch to higher efficiency broadcast standards like DVB-T2.

In its decision to make the 700MHz band available for mobile data, issued in November 2014, Ofcom said it believes it is possible to implement the re-plan “without materially affecting DTT coverage or channel line-up” and that it does “not believe wider adoption of DVB-T2 is necessary to accomplish this objective.” Patten disagrees: “Arqiva feels that there’s certainly merit in considering a switch to T2 and, if it was possible, to align that to clearance. But it’s a complex issue, because obviously it depends on what the actual scale of T2 uptake is in the market as we go along.”

In Germany the situation is different. Here, regulator the Bundesnetzagentur has committed to both a prompt clearance of the 700MHz band and a prompt switch to DVB-T2. Something that is arguably easier to manage, due to the comparatively low uptake of DTT compared to countries like France, Spain or the UK.

In a strategy statement published earlier this year, the Bundesnetzagentur said it will support the private and public service broadcasters so they can “begin switchover work on their transmitters, if possible in April 2015, so that DVB-T2 operations can begin as planned in spring 2016. This should create the conditions whereby the spectrum can be used gradually from 2017 for mobile communications and where possible nationwide from mid-2018 for mobile broadband.”

Beutler at SWR claims that the move to DVB-T2 and a further step to HEVC is essential in Germany in order to not have to reduce the DTT offering. This is because the country has “very difficult boundary conditions”, meaning pressure on spectrum availability – especially in the Luxembourg area where there are “so many countries more or less adjacent to each other”, he says.

At the EBU, Fell claims that reallocation of the 700MHz band means that the whole spectrum “frequency planning exercise will be a lot tighter, generally, in future.” He says: “It leaves less and less space for future development of new services. So I think the only way that will develop in the future is if people migrate to more efficient coding technologies like DVB-T2 and HEVC, but that’s an expensive proposition.”

Future spectrum pressure

François Rancy, the director of the Radiocommunication Bureau at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the global forum on the evolution of radio technologies and the organiser of WRC-15 – agrees about the potential of the new compression standards. “You can see that if we look at the situation in 2020, the mainstream will be HEVC with DVB-T2, which provides about, I would say, compared to MPEG-2 and DVB-T, almost 10 times more spectrum efficiency. I think it’s difficult to speak of spectrum crunch when technology is providing you with 10-times higher efficiency,” he says.

Looking ahead, Rancy believes that spectrum efficiency will only continue, saying: “You are going to see more advances and broadcasting will naturally evolve.” He claims that one result of this could be that broadcasters will be able to transmit more content or to transmit in better quality, while another possibility is that spectrum managers will see the improvement and look to “squeeze” further to give more spectrum to the mobile community.

Even though the Lamy report clearly calls for Europe to “reject any plans for primary allocation of mobile to the 470-694MHz band which is currently already allocated to broadcasting on a primary basis,” and for the EU to adopt a “common position against” any such co-primary allocation at WRC-15, the GSMA is still keen to discuss the option.

“The spectrum below 700MHz, 470-694Mhz, is in the WRC agenda item 1.1 as one of the bands to consider an IMT allocation for. It is currently being considered and will be considered at the November meeting,” states GSMA head of spectrum Tarnutzer.

Schepers at the GSMA agrees that the organisation needs “to ensure that there is the possibility and that co-primary allocation is going to become a reality, because we don’t have many opportunities.” He claims that with the WRC-15 now six months away, there will not be another opportunity for the mobile industry to stake a claim on the sub-700MHz band “until 2019 or possibly even 2023,” with rollout times having the potential to add another 10 years on top of that before deployment.

However, the GSMA will have a fight on its hands. Caines at Ofcom admits that there is likely to be some discussion at WRC-15 about allowing mobile use of frequencies in the 470-694MHz range, but says “in line with most of the rest of Europe, we are expecting to oppose such a change.”

Fell agrees that while it is “almost inevitable” that the GSMA will try to swing the conversation onto the topic of the sub-700MHz spectrum range, TV viewers will risk not knowing what they’ve got until it’s gone. He says: “I think there’s been a very robust defence of digital TV broadcasting and I hope that enough has been done to convince people there’s extremely high value in that.”

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