Day 2, European Spectrum Management Conference: We need a balanced debate on the future of UHF spectrum

Day 2, The 7th Annual European Spectrum Management Conference, Brussels

My post yesterday focused on the weight of political and regulatory support at a European level for the reallocation of the 700MHz band to mobile, which might suggest the WRC 2015 debate is practically a “done deal”. So what now for the broadcast and mobile industries?

During the second day of the European Spectrum Management Conference in Brussels, I spoke to representatives from the ITU, European Commission, RSPG and Broadcast Networks Europe and I was struck by the lack of coordination between the mobile and television communities when debating spectrum issues. To their credit, the mobile industry has already done a lot of thinking on the 700MHz opportunity, but neither the Commission nor the ITU tried to suggest that the broadcast community has yet been properly consulted. Broadcasters on the other hand have been slow to react to the WRC’12 announcement, and they are now short on time to form a consensus view ahead of the fast approaching July meeting of the Joint Task Group.

We desperately need a balanced debate participated in by both the mobile and broadcast communities before decisions are taken that inadvertently harm the future of either industry. We are impacting the future of two important industries to the European economy and these issues should not be taken lightly.

I’d like to ask some fundamental questions:

  • Have we fully understood the the future network capacity requirements of both the mobile and broadcast sectors?
  • Have we thought through the full range of available options to increase network capacity before defaulting to radio spectrum?
  • Is it possible for mobile and broadcast to co-exist in the UHF band?

The UHF debate in Europe is an incredibly important economic and cultural issue. We are talking about the future innovation and technological advancement of one of the most important economic contributors to European GDP, and the vast entrepreneurial opportunities opened up by the mobile app and connected multiscreen environment. And we are also debating the future health of the highly valuable content production and advertising sectors (what you might call the “hidden” or “invisible” economic value of broadcasting), a major source of cultural value – BARB reports that the average Brit spends 27 hours a week watching TV – and the primary mechanism of public policy delivery.

I’d also like to highlight that the broadcast and mobile communities are not competitors, even though the tone of the radio spectrum debate might make you think otherwise! Oversimplifying, broadcasters and the producers they support are the creators of our content experiences, while mobile is a highly valuable delivery mechanism. These are industries that should be working together to deliver content to consumers across a range of hybrid networks.

So can broadcasters and mobile operators co-exist in the UHF band? I go back to the fundamental question – how do we scale our networks to cope with future data demand?

There are three approaches to increasing network capacity: spectrum, technology and network density, but the 700MHz debate seems to assume the default solution is to find more radio spectrum. For mobile operators, bidding billions of euros at auction is cheaper than building more base stations. A piece of analysis I conducted in my role at Redshift calculated that over the next 10 years in the UK, the cost to mobile operators of satisfying capacity demand without any new spectrum is 3-5x what it would cost with planned spectrum releases.

But there are other solutions. Handset efficiency, for example, particularly in smartphones where I’ve seen efficiency scaling factors of as little as 32% (i.e. the handset demands 3x more capacity than if it were 100% efficient). Network technology, to give another example, where the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands are still predominantly used for 2G GSM technology from the 1980s.

Broadcasting is not much better, but the debate is more advanced because they’ve been forced to consider technological solutions to their capacity problems. For example, according to the DVB Project, migrating from DVB-T to DVB-T2 will improve spectral efficiency by 30-50%, and there are continuing efforts in video compression.

But the big difference between mobile and TV in this regard is in the deployment of new technologies. Broadcasters have historically been mandated by Government and regulators to “switch over” to new technologies by defined dates. It happened with the switch from analogue to digital, and there is no reason to believe it will be different moving from DVB-T to DVB-T2.

So why haven’t policy makers adopted a similar line with mobile? What prevents a mandated switchover from 2G to 3G and even 4G? Why has there not been a tougher line on the spectral efficiency of handsets?

To their credit, the mobile industry is an expert lobbying machine and has long understood the art of coordinating debate and forcing the agenda at the policy level. Broadcasters have been comparatively weaker in this regard, perhaps because they individually lack the multi-national, cross-border presence of their mobile counterparts. But the decisions made now on UHF spectrum will have far reaching consequences into the next decades, and I believe it needs a more balanced debate than we’ve had to date.

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