Sennheiser UK’s Alan March on the spectrum conundrum

Alan March, product management (professional) and head of spectrum affairs at Sennheiser UK, offers his thoughts on what the future might hold for wireless system users.

On 19 November 2014 Ofcom, the UK spectrum regulator, announced its intention to clear existing users – primarily Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE – wireless microphones, in-ear monitors and some talkback) from the 700MHz frequency band. These users have been operating in this band for over 40 years but must, it seems, now make way for additional mobile broadband services to be provided by the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

Coming after the recent 800MHz clearance, the result will be 168MHz of prime spectrum taken from Broadcasting and Services Ancillary to Broadcasting and Programme Making and Special Events (SAB/PMSE). The decision, when implemented, will have profound consequences, both for the broadcast and entertainment sectors that create, distribute and export content, and consumers in the UK and abroad who consume that content.

Many believe that MNOs already have plenty of existing spectrum, which, if re-farmed sensibly, would provide plenty of capacity. Indeed, at a recent Ofcom Stakeholder meeting, EE publicly stated that the mobile sector already has enough spectrum and that the MNOs just needed to ‘move the data around the networks better’.

Spectrum management moves incredibly slowly. This can have the effect of decisions being overtaken by technological and/or political developments. The technologies employed today are light years from those in place when the clearance of the 700MHz band was first mooted. Additionally, enabling roaming across each other’s networks would significantly increase capacity without having to allocate the MNOs more spectrum.

Meanwhile, technology continues to develop. There is already talk of 5G, which may operate in the GHz frequency bands. Are we going to clear the 700MHz band, then find it was not really required?

There are several ironies associated with this decision. Firstly, the claimed increase in data demand is film and video content. This decision will, perversely, remove access to the very band that is critical for the production of the best of that content. It’s wireless production tools that facilitate making the kind of content that users expect and demand. In simple terms, this decision runs the risk of ending up with a large delivery pipe, but nothing of any quality to send down it.

Secondly, one of Ofcom’s prime responsibilities is to minimise the interference between conflicting or competing services. In this decision, Ofcom admits that some people will be adversely affected by interference to their DTT reception, but is doing its best to downplay the numbers. But are we about to enter a world whereby, in order to watch DTT interference free, people will need to switch off their mobile phones?

For many years there has been dialogue within the mobile sector, from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU – the highest level of spectrum management), down through the regions and into national regulators.

Meanwhile, the broadcast sector has believed that broadcasting, and DTT in particular, is sacrosanct.

There are those in this debate who regard the very concept of free-to-air TV as anathema. They would love to switch off DTT so the only way to receive media content would be across consumer subscription networks. While Ofcom has implied that DTT is safe until at least 2030, a watchful eye should be kept on developments. The pressure will remain – and the public should be aware.

So is the 700MHz band clearance a ‘Digital Dividend Too Far?’ The PMSE sector says yes, and that not enough has been demanded of the MNOs to get their own houses in order first. It could be viewed as a ‘land grab’ for the mobile sector, predicated on perceived ‘benefits’ to consumers that they do not need and are, in reality, unwilling to pay for. All this at the cost of capping any future growth in the free-to-air TV sector and imposing serious constraints on the industry’s ability to make the quality content that consumers expect.