Delegates from around the world are now meeting Dubai to discuss the normally dry subject of international frequency allocations. This time the remaining frequencies allocated to terrestrial TV are up for debate.
Among the delegates attending the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC23) are representatives from UK broadcast regulator Ofcom. In the run up to the event, broadcasters and telecoms companies have had their say as to what should be decided.
Mobile networks are seeking further use of terrestrial TV frequencies, used in the UK by Freeview. This comes after already taking two chunks of UHF spectrum for 4G and 5G. Some broadcasters want no change, others want to give the UK a little more time to migrate to an internet only environment.
The choice on offer at WRC23 in Dubai is between these two options:
- ‘no change’ – the frequencies between 470 and 694 MHz remained allocated to terrestrial TV and for Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE).
- ‘co-primary allocation’ – the frequencies are no longer solely allocated to terrestrial TV and PMSE. They are also available to mobile network operators for future mobile services.
While live TV on traditional platforms is declining, new online-only platforms have opened up a world of new free streaming channels. So migrating from the current Freeview service to an all-streamed service would open up these extra channels to more viewers.
Last year, Ofcom consulted with stakeholders on what they thought should be the UK’s position at WRC23. Here are some of their responses:
What the broadcasters say
Talking Pictures TV
The vintage film and television channel supports the ongoing use of frequencies for terrestrial TV:
“[Terrestrial TV] is free at the point of use – delivering a diverse range of content, including public service broadcasting. This provides access to affordable and reliable programming that has a clear impact on personal wellbeing and community cohesion.
We would like to reiterate our support for a ‘no change’ position.”
The BBC’s Director General Tim Davie previously promoted a internet-only BBC.
But the BBC told Ofcom it would support the ‘no change’ position on the basis that it would provide more time for the UK to get viewers migrated to internet-only TV.
The BBC said: “A ‘No Change’ position at WRC is the only way for the UK to retain control of its TV ecosystem and distribution approach, which will allow us to carefully time and manage the DTT to IP (Internet Protocol) switchover process for the benefit of audiences, including some of the most disadvantaged or vulnerable groups, for the creative sector, and ultimately the UK as a whole. We believe that a decision to allocate this spectrum should be deferred to a future WRC.”
In the meantime, it’s working with other stakeholders to develop ‘Freely’, designed to replace Freeview in a streaming environment.
Together TV originally lost its Freeview slot in the summer of 2022 as one set of Freeview frequencies were reallocated to 5G. It continued on Freeview as an online-only channel.
It told Ofcom: “We are seeing the impact daily that the loss of Digital Terrestrial TV (DTT) coverage has – hundreds of viewers have written in to complain they can no longer receive the channel and that their TVs are not connected or capable of running the IP delivered version of the channel.”
“However, given that many poor, old, isolated and vulnerable families are unlikely to switch to IP only TVs and/or have high speed broadband in the very near future, we emphasised the need for the current Freeview DTT distribution networks to be maintained for the foreseeable future, and emphasized the need for universally-affordable high speed broadband before any IP ‘Digital Switchover’ could take place”
“Our group operates 20 local TV services which broadcast on DTT (channel number 7 or 8) and is a shareholder in the local multiplex operator, Comux UK. We hold a DTPS licence and broadcast our core ‘iconic TV’ brand, That’s TV, on DTT (channel number 65) on the COM6 multiplex operated by Arqiva. We also recently acquired the geographic interleaved multiplex which provides additional DTT services in the Greater Manchester region using a transmission system located at Arqiva’s Winter Hill site.
Its submission to Ofcom continued: “We are therefore strongly committed to the future of DTT and believe that it is critical that there is no change in the spectrum made available for national, local / geographic services that rely upon it.”
ITV, Channel 4 and Paramount (Channel 5’s owner) have remained rather silent on the matter.
What telecoms companies say
BT, owner of the EE network told Ofcom:
“Now is… absolutely the right time to take international regulatory decisions that would give the UK the greatest possible flexibility to facilitate future changes and would support development of a mobile ecosystem at 600 MHz that the UK could take advantage of at the appropriate time.”
It said incremental sub-1GHz frequencies are “needed to provide additional capacity in the more difficult to reach places and will enhance the network quality experienced by consumers.”
NOTE: EE has already acquired the largest chunk of ex-TV frequencies in the 700MHz band and is not yet fully utilising them in all areas, including those difficult to reach places.
“Vodafone supports a co-primary allocation for mobile services in the sub-700 MHz band. In adopting this position, we do not necessarily argue for a change to the current Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) usage in the UK.
Rather, co-primary is the only outcome that allows the necessary future flexibility for individual countries to make their own decisions on the correct mix of DTT and mobile spectrum usage (within the bounds of international agreements).”
Virgin Media O2
The cable & internet TV and mobile operator said: “If the existing users wish to vacate the band ahead of the 2034 licence expiry, driven by changes in funding models and a substantial shift in TV consumption patterns (to IP and application delivery) we believe that Ofcom should be agile and move to close down DTT, before licence expiry, if desired by the public service broadcasters. Ofcom can then expedite releasing this spectrum for mobile use and ensure its optimal use.
In the meantime, Ofcom should support a co-primary designation to mobile for the lower UHF band at WRC-23, as a first step. A move to co-primary designation for mobile will assist with developing the ecosystem ready for standardisation.”
Nokia told the regulator that it supports a co primary allocation of the band 470-694 MHz to mobile services.
“A primary mobile allocation in the 470-
694 MHz band at WRC-23 will provide greater flexibility and support an eventual migration of the band (or parts thereof) from broadcasting to other uses, with the principal new application being mobile services. Also the evolution of new converged mobile video distribution systems like a 5G Broadcast complemented by individual downstream capabilities via mobile SDL could greatly benefit from a co-primary mobile allocation of the band.”
“Increased access to high-quality internet in deep rural areas can improve the economic wellbeing of people, improve their lives through access to health facilities, education and other essential services.
The only way to guarantee that these areas get fast, reliable connectivity is to provide operators the ability to add more spectrum to the already-existing stations. This additional spectrum will need to be in the UHF band to maintain the cell radius and make use of existing networks.”
Telecom companies are then broadly in favour of ‘co-primary’ allocation. But the Digital TV Group (DTG) explained to Ofcom why this is a problem:
“In supporting “no-change” DTG notes that there are claims that it is possible to sustain DTT and PMSE services in the UK if adjacent countries chose to use co-primary allocation to launch mobile services, however in practice history demonstrates that this would be very challenging; previous co-primary allocations have resulted in a harmonised removal of PMSE and DTT from that spectrum. It follows that a co-primary allocation at WRC23 could unintentionally force the UK to move to clear PMSE and DTT from some or all of 470-694 MHz.”
Additionally, PMSE users are concerned about the loss of frequencies used for wireless communications in theatres, stadia and large outdoor events. PMSE users can share with digital terrestrial TV, but this is not possible with 5G services. Trials of using 5G technology to replace existing wireless services is still at an early stage.
So what now?
The two sides of the debate are clearly divided. At WRC23, there is an option to opt for ‘no change’ to terrestrial frequencies now. Then in 2027, at the next conference, the issue could be moved forward. By then UK and other countries should be further along with moving towards an internet-only TV environment. Notably by then, Freely will be available. If it’s as successful as Freeview was, then it will help viewers migrate across to a streaming environment.
In addition to concerns about fibre broadband availability, recently launched internet TV services require users to have specific equipment. And access to the TV platform is often bundled with other services, i.e. not standalone.
Users, once chained in to a contract and forced to use mandatory equipment then face charges for extras, such as the ability to fast forward ads. They are also bound by contractual inflation-busting price rises.
As a result, the current services are a long way off from providing truly universal and affordable access.
That’s where some hope Freely will be the tool through which the masses can be migrated to streaming TV.