UK sportscasters face spectrum challenge

By Kevin Hilton

SVG Europe Correspondent

UK broadcasting and frequency licensing body Ofcom revealed just before Christmas details of its long-awaited Digital Dividend. This lays out proposals for future use of the radio spectrum that will become available through the transition to all-digital television transmission that begins in 2008 and runs until 2012.

Publication of the Digital Dividend comes hard on the heels of Ofcom’s stated intention to free up 215MHz of spectrum covering the 2500-2690MHz, 2010-2025MHz and 2290-2300MHz bands. This latest announcement concentrates on the much-coveted UHF band and in particular the frequencies 470 to 862MHz.

Large geographical areas are covered by these frequencies and so competition is expected to be fierce, with those vying for the commodity coming from a wide variety of user backgrounds. The sports broadcasting sector will be hoping to secure a number of frequencies and Ofcom certainly sees wireless microphones for TV and radio production, as well as theatre and live music, as a primary use.

Other major areas identified are local digital terrestrial TV channels, mobile TV and multimedia services, broadband wireless, low power wireless applications, including domestic WiFi, and public safety use, in particular radio communications for the emergency services. Additional national digital terrestrial TV services are another possibility and that could include more specialist sports channels.

Ofcom is issuing a consultation document that will ultimately decide the allocation of the spectrum, taking the view that a regulator is not in the best position to make such a judgement. The aim is to allow licences to be traded in an attempt to liberalise the market and encourage those that receive spectrum to make the most efficient and wide-ranging use of it.

After the consultation period the frequencies will be put out to auction, which is likely to happen towards the end of 2008. As the UK analogue TV switch-off is to be staggered region-by-region between 2008 and 2012, the spectrum is expected to become available on a similar incremental, regional basis.

There will be four instances where Ofcom is to make specific proposals for usage. The one that is most relevant to the sports sector is the transitional arrangements for professional programme makers and use of wireless microphones. This currently involves reserved UHF spectrum and needs co-ordinated access to guard against interference. While Ofcom hopes that the move to a market-based mechanism will bring more flexibility and less regulation, a batch of UK-wide spectrum parcels will be available for broadcasting and live events, until at least 2012, to make for a seamless crossover.

Other protected applications include wireless mics for use by schools, churches and small theatres. This usage is currently based around the 854-862MHz band and will continue to be made available on a deregulated, free-of-charge and licence-exempt basis. Also covered in this section are local television broadcasting services, which are likely to use the interleaved UHF spectrum that sits between TV transmitters to prevent interference, and services that will potentially exploit new technology, such as low-power wireless transmission.

Commenting on the Digital Dividend, Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom, said, “The Review offers the prospect of a range of new services for the benefit of numerous communities and businesses across the UK. Our aim is to ensure that as many users as possible have the freedom to innovate and the scope to deliver the maximum benefits to UK society.”

Ofcom: www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs.ddr

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