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UK’s 4G DTT Battle Heats Up As Spectrum Decision Looms

by David Mercer | 6月 26, 2012

Freeview's Managing Director, Ilse Howling, today warned UK regulators and politicians that the free digital TV service could only continue to grow if it had access to the 600MHz and 700MHz bands. Speaking at this morning's Westminster eForum event, she also reconfirmed her company's opposition to the current proposals for use of the 800MHz band by 4G services, which could, according to Arqiva's Charles Constable, lead to many more than two million homes losing access to some or all Freeview services.

Howling praised the Government's decision to fund the cost of the filters required to minimise disruption to television services, but criticised the fact that there was currently no proposal to fund the cost of installing these devices in homes, which is estimated at between £150 and £160 per home. Howling believes that the 'polluter pays' principle should apply, the 'polluters' in this case being providers of 4G services, in case there was any doubt.

Howling's position was supported, not surprisingly, by the DTG's Richard Lindsay-Davies, who said that management of 4G spectrum and white spaces were the most important challenges facing DTT's future. To that end he announced that the DTG's own test centre had been chosen by the UK government to assess the threat of 4G interference with DTT receivers. Professor Sylvia Harvey made the important point that the term 'interference' is inappropriate in the digital world, since rather than deteriorating gradually or suffering partial degredation, services would immediately disappear altogether.

There was also general agreement with the suggestion made by Barry Fox, renowned technology journlist, that a real world trial of 4G, possibly in the Oxfordshire area (containing the constituencies of Prime Minister David Cameron and Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey) would allow everyone to see exactly how many homes and devices would be affected by the introduction of 4G services, since however rigorous the testing, real world conditions are impossible to predict. One can imagine that the disappearance from the Freeview airwaves of a major live sports event – the Olympics 100m final perhaps – caused by a temporary 4G switch-on might be effective in bringing the issue to national attention.

In spite of their natural allegiance to the television industry, most eForum speakers recognised the importance of 4G services in the UK’s overall information infrastructure, but there are clearly battles ahead when it comes to the fine details of which spectrum gets used for which services and who pays for disruption to established businesses caused by the introduction of new technologies.

The wider context of the debate centres on the relative importance of traditional television in the context of the continued expansion and influence of personal and mobile devices such as a smartphones and tablets as media consumption platforms. These issues were also addressed at the conference but with an inevitable bias towards traditional models, in the sense of both “big screen” and “free to access” as key components of what many (British and European) people still understand as “television”.

The key unknown in much of this discussion is whether the current sharp demographic variation in media device consumption patterns indicates a permanently altered landscape. In other words, will today’s young, small screen video viewers remain that way as they grow older or will they seize the opportunity to migrate to a large screen HDTV as soon as they form their own households in later life? Because the assumption of many “wireless” provider seems to be that “wireless broadband” is the only service many people will need in the future to consume whatever content (video, music, games) on their personal smart devices as well as larger screens. The US is already debating whether LTE broadcasting can provide a long term replacement for traditional over-the-air signals (see Ericsson IEEE paper). If such debates come to Europe then the DTT/4G arguments seem set to become even more complex.

David Mercer

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