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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 07:57 GMT 08:57 UK
Line up for spectrum gold rush
By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

The campaign robot for digital switchover
The UK switchover has begun
As the residents of Whitehaven in Cumbria become the first guinea-pigs of the digital switchover in the UK, so attention moves to what will happen with all the freed-up airwaves.

The move to digital broadcasting, which is roughly six times more efficient than analogue, means that a large amount of spectrum will be released for completely new services once digital switchover is complete in 2012.

The battle for spectrum has become a kind of digital gold rush as mobile operators, broadcasters and broadband providers all put their cases for how the spectrum should be used.

These three lobby groups want different things from the spectrum:

  • Mobile firms could use it to add high quality video to existing services
  • Broadcasters want to keep the TV airwaves to roll out High Definition (HD) channels
  • Internet providers are keen to see at least some of the spectrum used for wireless broadband services.

    Sought-after spectrum

    Man panning for gold
    There's spectrum in them there hills..

    Regulator Ofcom is in charge of deciding how the spectrum will be allocated and has made it clear that it favours a market-led approach which could see the spectrum sold off to the highest bidder.

    Historically governments have taken a more rigid approach to spectrum allocation, dictating what the uses would be.

    The spectrum in question would see up to 112 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum in the Ultra High Frequency band up for grabs, which equates to about 30% of the traditional TV airwaves. This spectrum is particularly sought-after because of its capacity and its range.

    "If you think of it as spectrum real-estate then this is Mayfair and Park Lane," commented Richard Allen, head of government affairs for giant network firm Cisco.

    His feet are firmly in the wireless broadband camp when it comes to what use to put the spectrum to.

    "It would provide an alternative to those areas that are poorly serviced by wired services. The big advantage of broadband is that, unlike TV, it is a two-way service which means interactivity. That seems to be the kind of model that society is moving towards," he said.

    Pressure group

    Example of HDTV
    Ofcom thinks HDTV services could come from existing spectrum

    Ultimately the decision about how to use the spectrum will be a political one, thinks Ian Fogg, an analyst with research firm Jupiter.

    "The real debate is whether this spectrum should be kept for TV or something else. If it is sold to the highest bidder, which seems to be the direction Ofcom is leaning towards, then it probably wouldn't go to the broadcasters," he said.

    The voice of the public broadcasters has been getting louder and in spring of this year the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 along with Sony, Samsung and Dixons, joined forces to form a pressure group dubbed HDforAll.

    They want to see the freed-up spectrum ring-fenced for High Definition TV on the Freeview platform.

    According to Ofcom, more than one in four of the UK's television sets are now connected to a Freeview box.

    "High definition is already a consumer reality, and it's one that really adds value for audiences. It's a technological advance we think can and should be available as far as possible to all viewers," said a BBC spokesperson.

    "Without some intervention to allocate additional spectrum it is very unlikely that sufficient HD channels could be launched to ensure that Freeview keeps pace with changing consumer expectations," she said.

    Viewers of satellite and cable services already have access to HDTV.

    Generation gap

    Ofcom is looking at the possibility of using new broadcasting technology to free up extra capacity for both HD and standard definition TV services from existing TV spectrum.

    It is due to publish its recommendations shortly and, if this is a viable option, would mean the rest of the spectrum would be available for other uses.

    The BBC welcomed Ofcom's relook at how to allocate spectrum but remained concerned that "practical, legal and economic issues could ultimately prove insurmountable" in the option currently on the table.

    "It could necessitate such significant sacrifices across either existing services or existing programme budgets that it is hard, in the interest of viewers, to justify pursuing the option," read a BBC statement.

    "We remain concerned that the once in a generation decision to auction off spectrum released by digital switchover to the highest bidder might well result in Freeview being able to offer little in the way of HD for a generation," the statement continued.

    It is not the only criticism Ofcom has faced. Lobbying from radio mic users saw it ring-fence a portion of the spectrum to ensure that live broadcasts and west end shows are unaffected by the sell-off.

    It also plans to parcel up some spectrum for local TV services.

    National resource

    The debate about how to use spectrum is also raging across Europe where it is fast becoming a political hot potato.

    In France, for example, there are indications that the government favours using its freed-up spectrum for HD TV

    The European Commission will publish its proposals in mid-November and, like Ofcom, it seems at the moment to be favouring service neutrality.

    For mobile operators, new spectrum would be a chance to increase their coverage as well as add TV services to their portfolios.

    But with mobile TV very much in its infancy, some think it unlikely that mobile operators will be at the front of the queue when it comes to handing out spectrum.

    "It may be that they carry on servicing mobile TV via their 3G networks. There is a question over whether they definitely need broadcast services," said David McQueen, an analyst at research firm Informa.

    T-Mobile said it would be interested in the UHF channels for mobile multimedia services but also called on Ofcom to work with Europe to ensure a harmonised band is available in all countries.

    Ofcom has described the spectrum as a "finite national resource" and, as digital switchover spreads, it seems inevitable that the different lobbies will continue to lay claim to the limited airwaves.

    Radio spectrum graphic

    First town switches to digital TV
    17 Oct 07 |  Entertainment
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    Q&A: Digital television
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    Pressure mounts on Ofcom over HD
    15 Mar 07 |  Technology

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