Last month I wrote about the announcement of Ofcom's strategic direction (http://goo.gl/cbau4K), including the re-purposing of the 700 MHz band, and referred to investigations into reducing and avoiding disruption to the digital terrestrial television platform. This clearance exercise will be absolutely vital and will likely require the involvement of Ofcom, infrastructure providers, multiplexers, and mobile network operators ("MNOs") in order to validate the change of use. This consultation sets out how Ofcom believes it will be possible to re-purpose parts of the 700 MHz band to mobile broadband without compromising the benefits which are currently enjoyed by consumers as a result of DTT and PMSE.
Why 700 MHz?
This part of the spectrum is being considered for re-purposing for a number of reasons. The 700 MHz band is ideal for mobile broadband as the signals are not as significantly attenuated by the atmosphere and other barriers, and so will travel further and pass through walls more easily than higher frequencies. It is also already used internationally, meaning that standards for equipment already exist or are in development – this leads to equipment being more easily available and economies of scale.
The repurposing of the 700 MHz band for mobile broadband will help MNOs to meet the constantly increasing demand for greater mobile broadband speed and capacity, and would likely result in a more competitive market and lower prices for consumers. The change might also benefit emergency services providers by improving mobile coverage.
Giving parts of the spectrum over to mobile broadband means taking them away from DTT and PMSE. DTT continues to play a central role in this country and provides widespread access to a wide array of programming, including the high-quality programming aired by the public service broadcasters. PMSE delivers benefits to UK culture, and fulfils the audio requirements of theatres, concerts, festivals, and sporting events. Ofcom proposes to reconfigure the DTT network to operate between 470 and 690 MHz, and that this would accommodate most (if not all) of the current services carried, but this would require a further switchover as occurred for the switch to digital from analogue. It further proposes to make other parts of the spectrum available for PMSE.
In order to re-purpose the 700 MHz band, there will be significant infrastructure costs. Modifications will be required to the DTT transmission infrastructure, and it would also require PMSE users to replace or modify their existing equipment. However, Ofcom is of the opinion that the overall benefits would outweigh these costs by a 'significant margin'.
It is likely to take several years to complete the changes and Ofcom estimates that retuning of television sets would need to take place in 2019, although strategies may be formulated to accelerate the programme.
This is not a fait accompli, and Ofcom expects to publish its final decision later this year or in early 2015. It plans to engage with other European Member States (including Finland, France, and Sweden) which are already moving mobile services onto the 700 MHz band, and will take into account the experience of those countries. The transition is also dependent upon the outcome of the consultation; securing appropriate funding; undertaking more detailed analysis into co-existence of services; and reaching spectrum planning agreements following participation in international frequency planning processes.
Any allocation of the 700 MHz band to MNOs should the programme be approved will take place via spectrum auctions, although there may be scope for mobile and DTT multiplex licensees to co-operate to increase the pace of the change of use and improve network deployment planning.