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TV Licence Fee Holds Key To IPTV v. Terrestrial Broadcasting Debate

by David Mercer | 8月 10, 2012

A report was released by the UK Government's Lords Select Communications Committee while I was on holiday a couple of weeks ago but I thought it was worth flagging it up. The report, Broadband For All - An Alternative Vision, speaks to an issue I have been discussing with clients for many years, namely the fact that, given a blank sheet of paper in the 21st century, we would never design our communications infrastructure to use terrestrial broadcast (wireless) spectrum to deliver television services to fixed devices.

Even when many things are converging, there remains a fairly clear distinction between a device or screen which remains largely or wholly in a fixed position (the large screen TV being the best example) and devices which are, to one degree or another, intended to support portability or mobility (the best example being the smartphone). The nature of communications technology dictates that if we deploy a combination of wired and wireless connections it makes sense to aim wires at fixed devices and wireless at mobile. That all assumes, of course, that we need wired connections at all, since if wireless could support every application then it would even be preferable for fixed devices. But if we assume that large screen television is going to place ever greater demands on networks (through HD, 3D, 8k and an ever growing numbers of channels, applications and screens) it is safe to assume that wires have some role to play for the foreseeable future. (Even the most aggressive 4G proponents are not claiming this technology could completely replace broadcast TV platforms any time soon.)

These are the main arguments behind the Committee’s recommendation to consider moving all current terrestrial broadcasting to the Internet:

“We recommend that the Government, Ofcom and the industry begin to consider the desirability of the transfer of terrestrial broadcast content from spectrum to the internet and the consequent switching off of broadcast transmission over spectrum, and in particular what the consequences of this might be and how we ought to begin to prepare.”

As an industry representative I can offer one immediate topic for discussion: how could the role of the television licence fee be altered to meet this objective? Reaction to the Broadband For All report has already demonstrated a common misconception: that terrestrial broadcasting is currently “free”, and therefore also a false question, namely “how can broadband be paid for when one of its main purposes is to support free television?” Of course, television does not come free, even when viewers can watch it without subscribing to Sky or Virgin Media. UK residents have to pay the annual licence fee of £145.50 ($227) in order to receive any television services, and other “free” services are supported by advertising. These income streams indirectly pay for the broadcast transmission services which currently support over-the-air broadcasting.

So if the Committee’s wishes are ever fulfilled it would seem that some of the licence fee should be diverted towards funding broadband, whether in its establishment or maintenance and operation. Broadband service providers will certainly be interested to know who is going to pay for the vast amounts of data which broadcast-equivalent internet television services would consume. One way or another the topic of the licence fee will inevitably become a key element in the broadcast switch-off debate.

Incidentally, it’s also good to see another of my long-held views (see Time to End This Broadband Nonsense: Ofcom Must Enforce Minimum Speeds) being reinforced by the Lords Committee, namely the demand to avoid the meaningless “up to” broadband speed marketing of the ISPs and focus on minimum requirements. “We recommend that the Government's targets should refer to minimum and median levels of service, and that Ofcom adapts its scorecard accordingly.” Hear, Hear!

David Mercer

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