The UHF Battleground: how to plan for the future when you can’t really predict it

One year ago in the ECC Newsletter we ran a set of three articles about the UHF frequency band 470-790 MHz. The articles explained why these frequencies are so highly prized and the focus of a huge amount of attention in the spectrum policy domain. We set out what we planned to do on the subjects of the 700 MHz band, of the long-term vision for UHF, and on Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR). Here we update the position, first with this overview, and then with two articles respectively about 700 MHz, and the 'long term UHF vision' below 694 MHz. We hope this is timely, with the recent publication of the report of the high-level Group set up by the European Commission’s Commissioner Kroes to consider the future of the UHF band, and, amongst other studies, a review of the subject also underway in the EU’s Radio Spectrum Policy Group.

Although the demand for wireless broadband services is the current main driver for change in the band, the requirements for terrestrial television remain strong in many of Europe’s countries. The terrestrial TV platform itself is also undergoing change, in both its core technology and its modes of use. Along with this there are possibilities for major developments in Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR), and a stronger recognition of the requirements of the Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE) sector. These all come together to require a holistic view to be taken of this premium band.

Therefore in parallel with activities within national regulators, and at the European Commission, the ECC decided to look closely at the short-term and the long-term development of the range. The two different time horizons correspond to the two principal areas of ECC study on the frequency range in the last year.

First, the interest in using the 700 MHz band (c. 694-790 MHz) for wireless broadband (WBB) instead of broadcasting is more advanced and more tangible than at lower frequencies. It has inevitably become a pressing short-term issue. There are a number of reasons for this. To begin with, Europe in any case needs to prepare a suitable harmonised technical framework for WBB given that some countries have already decided to make the switch from broadcasting to mobile in the 700 MHz band (e.g. France), and many others are very actively considering the possibility (e.g. Germany, and the United Kingdom).

Then there is the need to have a common European position on 700 MHz for the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15). WRC-15 will decide the details of implementing the decision of WRC-12 to allocate the range to wireless broadband, co-primary with broadcasting.

Further, although the UHF TV band would look significantly smaller than it did in 2006 (when the current digital broadcasting plan for the region was agreed in Geneva in the GE06 agreement), a continued use of frequencies below 694 MHz quasi-exclusively for TV broadcasting still leaves 28 TV channels available, compared with the 40i available before the transfer of resources to wireless broadband began after 2006. This is still, in context, a large amount of spectrum which can support a significant offering of TV to the markets it seeks to address.

However, the longer term evolution of the frequencies below 700 MHz is another matter, and the subject of concern and conflicting assumptions and viewpoints. We believe this story will run for a long time, although some certainty and stability is needed already by the relevant sectors in order to maintain planning and investment.

Therefore the ECC decided that its strongest contribution to this subject at this stage would be to analyse trends in the relevant sectors, and the synergies that may develop between them, rather than to attempt in some way to 'pick a winner'. And there is anyway a great benefit as well in looking at the longer term as a backdrop for the more immediate work on 700 MHz.

Terrestrial TV

There is a widespread view that terrestrial TV use is in (eventually) terminal decline, and a widespread opinion that takes the opposite conclusion from the evidence. Some figures do point to a declining trend, while others suggest a robust core of viewing demand that is irreducible − although there may be more spectrally-efficient ways to do it, at least in theory. But the trends as well as the level of public use vary significantly between different countries.

The predicted demand levels also depend upon the model of use envisaged. It is possible to envisage Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) as a provider not of 'every conceivable technological development', but of more practical objectives like HD/SDii 'everyday' programming, and video on the move. Crucially, the fragmentation of models of video consumption (notably into linear and non-linear) require a better vision of how broadcast-meets-mobile in the future: or at least, how it might do so.

As a matter of policy, many countries value terrestrial TV significantly either for its role in providing platform competition, or particularly as a core delivery mechanism for free-to-air TV, carrying the most popular channels to a wide audience. There is also a range of opinions about the significance of high-definition and super high definition TV on the terrestrial platform, but that is a more speculative debate.

This underlines that terrestrial TV needs adequate provision there for the foreseeable future. However, the ECC did not set up its Task Group 6 to estimate what that means specifically, but to look at possible evolutionary trends. In other words, to look to a longer term vision.

Wireless broadband

Although not new, there is now increasing scrutiny given to the forecasts of capacity demand for wireless broadband, on which much of the present case for increasing allocations to it rests. Some have questioned the ITU’s core recommendation on the subject, Rec. M-2290, particularly challenging the assumptions made about population density and the dangers of simple extrapolation in time (and space!). Others, of course, robustly defend these calculations.

However, the demand in the UHF range, and notably for the 700 MHz band, is less linked to capacity alone (there are other frequencies available) as much as it is to utility. The WBB demand at 700 MHz also comes from the related but separate question of reducing the cost of network provision more generally. This consideration is significant in relation to the longer term vision for the band: although the 700 MHz can make a big difference, yet more frequencies below 694 MHz would inevitably have a relatively lesser impact on wireless broadband availability.

Other observers have drawn attention to the importance of recognising the price elasticity of mobile broadband demand, instead of simply saying 'potential demand is X and we should try and meet it to avoid constraining its growth'. But this also introduces a complex relationship with 700 MHz capacity compared with capacity provided at higher frequencies. In the era of triple play (bundling internet access, mobile and TV services), itself influenced by the volatile issue of how to monetise services provided on the internet, these business dynamics around a particular issue do not exist in isolation: there is no walled garden. But the relationship between an asserted exponential demand (if unconstrained) and the revenues needed to fund a corresponding supply side can seem unclear when looking longer term.

A balance?

It seems too early to predict what is the optimum balance between TV and mobile, a balance which itself is heavily influenced by local market factors. Perhaps the debate will shift to defining what is a minimum credible quantity of spectrum for either application, and making sure that that at least is secured in the first instance?

Mark Thomas
Director of the ECO

i Some countries have specific reservations for other uses of certain channels, e.g. Channel 38 for radioastronomy.
ii High definition/standard definition

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