Broadcasters and wireless microphone users are facing the reality that the 700MHz frequency band will be cleared and made available for mobile broadband, 5G and LTE (long term evolution) services in the near future. This is despite the fact that the World Radio Conference, which would ratify the move, does not meet until next year.
National regulators, including Ofcom in the UK, are moving ahead despite the publication of a recent study arguing that the cost of clearing DTT and PMSE (programme-making and special events) operations from the UHF spectrum would "significantly outweigh" the potential value of reallocating it for mobile use.
Like other European frequency licensing bodies, Ofcom has made clear its support for the reallocation of frequencies in the 700MHz spectrum. This was underlined on 19 November when the regulator announced that it would allow mobile network operators to run broadband services in the 700MHz band on frequencies currently used for digital terrestrial television (DTT), specifically the Freeview platform, and wireless mics.
This is planned to happen by the start of 2022, or even two years before that. By doing this, Ofcom hopes to make faster and more affordable mobile data services available to consumers and business users alike. Unlike the clearance of the 800MHz band, however, it says there will be no major switchover for DTT viewers, merely "a simple retune of existing TV equipment".
Ofcom states that it will also “ensure that users of wireless microphones in the PMSE sector, such as theatres, sports venues and music events, continue to have access to the airwaves they need to deliver their important cultural benefits”. A spokesman for the regulator told PSNEurope that it was working closely with the PMSE community and would confirm next year what alternative spectrum could be used for wireless mics. "As far as we can say, we have identified a number of bands for wireless mic use," he said.
A consultation process is currently underway, which includes looking into where existing radio mic equipment would need to be replaced. "A decision on funding [for that] is yet to be made but that is a matter for government," said the spokesman.
Outgoing Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards comments: "This is a crucial next step in the development of the UK's communications infrastructure. This decision ensures that we are making the raw materials available with which investors and companies can build the services that will support the digital economy of the future. More spectrum will be available for mobile broadband where demand is especially high but the UK will retain a competitive terrestrial television platform as well."
A study published at the end of October questions this, arguing that UHF spectrum is of higher value to DTT than for mobile usage by a factor of four to one. Future use of the 470–694MHz band was prepared by strategic telecommunications consultancy Aetha for terrestrial and satellite telecom infrastructure management company Aertis, UK transmission provider Arqiva, the BBC, BNE (Broadcast Networks Europe), the EBU and TDF, the high speed media network group.
Among the conclusions of the report is that the €38.5 billion cost of clearing DTT from the UHF spectrum would "significantly" offset the potential worth of it for mobile services. The study evaluates the costs and benefits of turning 700MHz over to mobile services compared to it continuing to house DTT, PMSE, radio astronomy and white spaces.
Other observations include that DTT could need extra spectrum to develop, especially with the current interest in ultra-high-definition TV, and that wireless mics and other PMSE equipment would have no alternatives to the 470–694MHz bands they are currently allocated.
The Aetha study focusses largely on DTT but Lee Sanders, a partner in the consultancy (pictured) says the loss of 700MHz would be bad news for PMSE as well. "It looks very likely that the 700MHz band will go to mobile, LTE and 5G," he explains. "That would mean a reduction in the amount of spectrum for PMSE, including interleaved frequencies. Although there would be spectrum beneath that there would be a big impact [on wireless mic users], especially for large events."
Sanders adds that a new home might be found for PMSE in "the centre gap of the 700MHz band" but overall the Aetha report is of the opinion that it would be "not appropriate" for WRC-15 to grant a co-primary allocation to mobile in 470–694MHz. Which is quite a conclusion from an organisation that usually supports the removal of technology and service restrictions on individual bands.
The British Entertainment Industry Radio Group (BEIRG) on Thursday (19 November) expressed its "disappointment and concern", stating: "Ofcom’s decision is a real danger to some of the UK’s most important cultural, social and economic events. The regulator’s decision will mean that radio microphones and other wireless audio devices key to the UK’s thriving creative industries, including West End and regional theatres, could be forced to operate in less than two thirds of the spectrum to which they currently have access. Every night, over 1000 wireless radio microphones are used in London’s West End alone, largely operating within the spectrum that is to be cleared.
"Fears remain that, if appropriate mitigating steps are not taken this could prove catastrophic to these key economic sectors, potentially resulting in a major reduction in the size of the UK’s live entertainment sector."