Handing over the 700MHz band to mobile operators is not as simple as it might appear, says Simon Fell

Although the broadcast industry is already working hard to make sure there is no disruption to services should a migration out of 700MHz occur, there are concerns about the process of migration and the European Commission’s suggested timetable of handing the 700MHz band over by no later than 2022.

While the frequency band is only partially used in the UK, I am concerned that in some countries where it is used heavily, such as Spain and Italy, the process of migrating will be a challenge.

The EC’s proposals will affect about 30% of the spectrum used for digital terrestrial TV (DTT) in markets where it is the main method of distribution.

There will be enough room to move multiplexes into the 600MHz band, but there will need to be a public campaign to tell some households to retune their set-top boxes, and considerable replanning of the network.

Some 250 million people across Europe rely on DTT. Even if they have a satellite provider such as Sky in their main room, many rely on DTT for their second set.

Viewers need to be warned because equipment will need to be retuned and there could be interference issues.

There are also 1,157 transmitter towers in the UK and many will need to be updated.

Giving up 700MHz is not as simple as it might seem.

It’s not as easy as flicking a switch and handing over the keys to a mobile operator.

There needs to be space for channels to migrate to, and we have to make sure due consideration is given to the amount of time it will take, and giving financial compensation to operators.

There also needs to be detailed frequency co-ordination. A host of different frequencies within the band are used in the UK for services such as local TV and to provide regional variations.

To avoid interference, the same frequency can’t be used in neighbouring regions or countries.

As such, the process of frequency co-ordination for Europe could take as long as three years.

Giving away the 700MHz band means broadcasters will have less to play with.

The EBU wanted to maintain the current spectrum because the opportunity to deliver only exists if there is a means of delivery, so it is important to have some space for new services.

There are more efficient encoding technologies and reception devices planned for the future, but it takes many years for consumers to adopt new technologies and taking away 700MHz will limit growth potential and reduce innovation of services.

The arguments put forward by the mobile industry in support of their claims for the spectrum were based on growing use of mobile data, yet mobile operators in some countries are not fully utilising the 800MHz band.

We believe there is no immediate desire for 700MHz but that mobile operators were keen to grab it.

Will the EC’s deadline of 2022 allow enough time? Ofcom believes it will, but it will need to consult with broadcasters.

I agree that the deadline will allow enough time in the UK, but only if we work on the transition now - and public awareness needs to be part of the transition roadmap.

Simon Fell is director of technology and innovation at the EBU