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Ofcom proposes changes for 700MHz spectrum

UK regulator's Annual Plan offers serious proposals for spectrum allocation that could affect PMSE, plus expansion of DAB.

Ofcom has laid out its intentions for broadcasting and frequency regulation in the UK over the 12-month period from 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2015. The Annual Plan concentrates on securing the “optimal use of spectrum”, with an emphasis on new mobile services, including data and the utilisation of ‘white spaces’ in existing bands.

Key among the proposals is the potential change of use in the 700MHz band, which is being earmarked for “harmonised mobile” operations. The repurposing of this part of the frequency spectrum was passed as a resolution at the 2012 World Radio Conference (WRC), which could lead to a decision allowing 700MHz to be used for mobile broadband after the next WRC in 2015.

This is already causing concern in the PMSE (programme makers and special events) sector, which relies on spectrum for radio microphones and in-ear monitors (IEMs). The Annual Plan acknowledges these fears and says it hopes to complete a review of PMSE spectrum issues during 2014 or 2015. Another cause of concern for radio mic users and broadcasters alike is the possible introduction of white space devices in the 470-790MHz range. Pilot trials are due to start during the first half of this year, together with “coexistence testing”.

The Annual Plan states on 700MHz: “Our strategic approach will also help to secure the ongoing delivery of other licensed services in the band, such as wireless microphone links, and allow the deployment of services based on white space technology. The PMSE sector delivers important benefits to citizens and consumers. We are developing a strategy aimed at ensuring that the PMSE sector can continue to deliver these benefits, following any change of use of the 700MHz band.”

Industry trade body BEIRG (British Entertainment Industry Radio Group) has been campaigning for PMSE to be properly recognised as a major user of spectrum and have its frequencies guranteed since the late 2000s. In a statement the organisations said: “BEIRG continues to call upon Ofcom to ensure that its spectrum planning model fully recognises and supports the requirements of PMSE. In this light we have been engaging fully with the development Ofcom’s Annual Plan and we are pleased that, following our dialogue, the spectrum requirements of PMSE have been recognised as a major work area.

“However, these welcome words must be matched by action, something which, sadly, the Plan appears to lack. BEIRG retains deep concerns about Ofcom’s apparent intention to repurpose the 700MHz band and its insistence on forging ahead with the introduction of white space devices (WSD). Any future action that Ofcom takes in both these areas must prioritise incumbent users, including PMSE. More must be done to encourage mobile network operators to make better use of their existing spectrum before they are simply granted additional allocations. In addition, full, real world testing of WSD, with PMSE industry involvement, must take place before any further steps are taken to introduce these devices. BEIRG continues to call upon Ofcom to identify and allocate a permanent spectral home for PMSE, free from threats of clearance or repurposing. An associated compensation scheme must be created to ensure that this important industry does not suffer financial loss.”

The Annual Plan also contains possible changes for digital radio, notably the licensing of a second commercial multiplex to increase listener choice. The licence will be advertised during spring 2014. There will also be technical work to “test the opportunities” for moving small-scale commercial and community radio stations on to DAB.