A campaign to retain traditional TV and radio broadcasting hit rocky ground this week after the BBC’s director-general said he wanted to push toward internet-only distribution of the BBC.
On Sunday, broadcast infrastructure company Arqiva rebooted its Broadcast 2040+ campaign lobbying decision-makers with the publication of a poll of voters in marginal parliamentary seats.
The poll found 75% of voters wanted their MP to actively support the continued provision of digital terrestrial TV and radio. This prompted MPs including North Devon’s Selaine Saxby to speak out in favour of protecting services.
The future use of frequencies for Freeview is in doubt beyond 2030. Usage of terrestrial TV frequencies is co-ordinated internationally by the ITU, a United Nations agency.
Next November, delegates from around the world will be meeting in Dubai for the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC) to discuss how to allocate frequencies in the next decade.
This follows a decade that has seen the 700 MHz and 800 MHz frequency band sold off to mobile operators to enhance their 4G and 5G networks. Mobile operators are now interested in acquiring further spectrum.
The BBC’s director-general Tim Davie has today told the Royal Television Society that he sees the BBC moving away from traditional broadcast platforms in favour of going online-only. In his speech, Mr Davie called on the industry to help educate users to ensure no-one is left out.
Meanwhile, Arqiva’s Broadcast 2040+ campaign has enrolled charities including Silver Voices and consumer group Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV) to lobby for services to remain how they are.
Whereas public broadcasters in Europe have joined calls to preserve TV frequencies for cultural and broadcasting use, the BBC has stayed silent. It has not participated in Arqiva’s Broadcast 2040+ campaign.
The BBC has told Ofcom that a position of ‘no change’ will give it time to migrate viewers from terrestrial TV to the internet, underpinning its intent to withdraw from traditional broadcast platforms.
The decision-making conference
The ITU splits the world in multiple regions. The UK is included in ITU Region 1 and the decision for region 1 will apply to all countries within it. Many organisations have already set out their position.
The European Commission has responded to lobbying by broadcasters and operators in the EU by saying terrestrial TV frequencies should be left alone.
But that won’t necessarily mean the current terrestrial TV system will remain: Broadcasters are actively trialling new technologies including 5G Broadcast as possible successors to current terrestrial TV services. Meanwhile, the African Union of Broadcasters has also supported a ‘no change’ motion.
The UK doesn’t yet have an official position. Virgin Media O2, Vodafone, BT and Three are demanding Ofcom support a reallocation of the remaining TV frequencies.
As viewers in South East England and Northern Ireland will know when they find non-UK services on their radio or TV, broadcast airwaves do not stop at borders. On its own, the UK’s position will not carry much weight and is still interlinked with decisions made in the EU.
The final outcome one way or the other won’t be known until December 2023.
The Government has said it will allow broadcasting licences for Freeview’s multiplexes to run until 2035, but with an early termination clause effective beyond 2030.
It’s also asked Ofcom to review digital terrestrial television in 2024, immediately after the ITU WRC-23 conference outcome. Its report will determine whether licences will be terminated earlier rather than later.
Why do the mobile networks want more spectrum?
They argue mobile services in current TV spectrum will help them improve 5G services and coverage and pave the way for future services, perhaps 6G.
Virgin Media O2 sees the remaining TV frequencies as a way of covering “deep rural areas”. It’s broadly an argument copied and pasted from a decade ago, but with 4G replaced by 5G.
But as mobile users will know, 4G and 5G services still have many coverage gaps. Some networks aren’t fully using the ex-TV frequencies they’ve already got hold of.
To recap: the mobile operators now operate on 700 and 800 MHz bands (mobile bands 20 and 28). Up for grabs in ITU Region 1 are the sub-700 MHz frequencies still used for TV.
The lower the frequency the less suited they are to deliver fast internet, unless a single mobile operator can secure a wide slice of spectrum in any auction.
The low frequencies are primarily beneficial for ensuring a mobile has a signal and can do basic tasks.
That’s why there’s also a push by the mobile networks to utilise other, higher frequencies, that can offer ever faster speeds, but have smaller coverage areas.
In the USA (ITU region 2), the 600 MHz frequency band is already used for mobile. Arguably, this helps operators reach remote parts of the country, areas where you can travel by car for hours with little change in the scenery.
That’s deeper than the deep rural areas of the UK Virgin Media O2 refers to. But even they are dependent on higher frequencies to actually deliver the speeds expected of 5G. Here, they are using mmWave (above 24 GHz), at the opposite end of the spectrum from terrestrial TV.
mmWave can deliver large quantities of capacity in places like transport hubs and stadia where you might find a high number of users in a small space, exactly what the current TV frequencies aren’t very good at doing.
Bear in mind that most of the current coverage problems relate to ongoing planning disputes about mobile towers and their height, rather than a lack of frequencies.
PICTURED: Divis transmitters. COPYRIGHT: Nathan Dane.