Trailblazing the way to a digital world

The Digital Dividend in Europe seen through the eyes of the Chairman of the former ECC Task Group 4

Only four months after the agreement ('GE06') was signed in 2006 for a new frequency plan to make the transition from analogue to digital TV broadcasting across a large part of the world, the CEPT started work on the 'Digital Dividend'. The GE06 agreement had taken years of preparation, negotiation and compromise to achieve. The CEPT's journey was not going to be any easier. But the potential benefits were great.

With digital broadcasting being so much more efficient in using spectrum than analogue, the transition provides Europe with a valuable and much needed spectrum bonus. Much of the current focus on the Digital Dividend is on making frequencies available for mobile broadband services to bring high speed internet to more people in more places. It also offers other opportunities.

It was at the final meeting of the ECC's special GE06 group in Seville, October 2006, when I was asked to consider chairing a new ECC Task Group to elaborate the ECC policy for the Digital Dividend. Before I knew it, I was chairing my first meeting of ECC Task Group 4 (TG4) on the possibility to use a sub-band of the UHF broadcasting band for services other than broadcast.

It was clear from the start that there were diverging opinions in TG4. Some people (a large majority of them) saw the Digital Dividend as something which was not implementable in Europe. Others were of the opinion that this was a once in a life-time opportunity to boost the economics of scale in Europe for new services.

Looking back, I realise this situation created an opportunity, or even a need for a different approach towards the topic. The only way forward was to focus on a hypothetical future situation to be placed somewhere in 2015 or even later, e.g. 2020.

Already after a short period of time, the Task Group came to the following conclusion, expressed in the CEPT Report 22, issued 6 July 2007:

“the harmonisation of a sub-band of the UHF band for mobile communication applications (i.e. including uplinks) is feasible from a technical, regulatory and administrative point of view, provided that it is not made mandatory and any decision about use of the harmonised sub-band is left to individual Administrations, within the framework of the GE-06 Agreement, and without prejudice to existing national licence obligations”.

In my opinion, this conclusion really was a major achievement and it may even be seen as a remarkable change in Europe's traditional approach to spectrum management topics. TG4 arrived at the conclusion that a certain target could be achieved, limiting itself to considerations of a technical strategic nature. After acknowledging the feasibility, the more specific technical challenges were tackled. And finally others had to decide when it could be implemented.

Who could imagine at the end of 2006 that already in 2010 the Digital Dividend in the bands IV/V was accepted and subject to implementation? The now-called 800 MHz band has become a reality and is seen by some as the opportunity to help Europe to overcome its economic crisis.

The approach developed by TG4 allowed for different implementation schemes for Digital Dividend in Europe, and these are still in place today. Some countries are still in the process of switching off analogue. Others have already freed up the 800 MHz band. There is even an example of a country already reaping the financial benefits of the 800 MHz band. This shows and also proves that a mutually agreed end solution does not have to be reached by all in an identical way. Some who are still in the process of switching off analogue may see the possibility for different implementation schemes as an opportunity instead of just “being late” in the Digital Dividend process. Others who are at the leading edge of the implementation are facing extraordinary challenges while freeing up the 800 MHz band. This is because it is not that easy to redistribute frequency use over the lower part of the band to broadcasting channels in a fair and realistic way.

The new situation once again tests the creativity of those involved. As an example, the following questions need to be answered:

  • How much spectrum will broadcasters need, facing a growing demand for HDTV?
  • Will there be enough spectrum available to accommodate the 'capacity tsunami' at the mobile consumers side?
  • Is it possible to predict consumer behaviour with regard to demand for content anytime and everywhere, and
  • What will be the dominant type of content requested?

Seen from the spectrum managers' position, two sub-regional initiatives have already been taken to answer the question how to deal with the implementation of the Digital Dividend. In the North Sea area it is the Western European Digital Dividend Implementation Platform (WEDDIP), and in North East Europe the North Eastern Digital Dividend Implementation Forum has started its activities this summer. From a European political perspective we see a growing wish to harmonise the implementation of the 800 MHz band, preferably with a fixed deadline.

If the Digital Dividend process has proven one thing, it is that all stakeholders have to take into account each other's position, and not be so firmly fixed on just pursuing their own goals. This difficult and complex dossier could only be handled successfully thanks to an attitude acknowledging the need for cooperation and collaboration. One of the key reasons for this attitude is the common desire to enable rapid implementation of new techniques and services.

To conclude, in my opinion the Digital Dividend process has paved the way to a new era regarding spectrum usage and spectrum management. I admit, it is only a small step but sometimes small steps lead to better understanding, and better understanding leads to better solutions.

Now there are other challenges ahead, and more knots to be unravelled. Technical wise: DVBT2, DRM+, DMB+ or cognitivety. Operational wise: asymmetric use, hybrid use or even de-coupling network operators and content providers, and last but not least 'greener' spectrum usage. With all these developments, spectrum management will stay challenging and trailblazing for a while!

Aljo van Dijken
Chairman of former ECC TG4