UK DTT viewers face disruption threat as Ofcom looks to 5G spectrum

UK regulator Ofcom last week unveiled plans to prepare frequencies for so-called 5G mobile services that could see the 700MHz spectrum currently allocated to digital-terrestrial TV being made available to mobile telecom companies.

Ofcom asserted that drawing on the 700MHz spectrum would be vital to avoid a possible capacity crunch as demand for high-speed mobile services grew. It said that that use of 700MHz would be part of a future harmonisation of spectrum across Europe and the rest of the world and could be achieved “without the need for another TV ‘switchover’”.

Ofcom said it believed that the future of DTT could be ensured provided that “alternative frequencies are available for DTT when the next generation of mobile broadband is introduced towards the end of the decade”.

The regulator maintains that reallocation of spectrum can be achieved without major disruption to existing DTT services and will in most cases require only a retuning of existing TV equipment. However, it conceded that “a small minority of consumers” may need to change their rooftop aerials, though most likely not before 2018. It said it would work with aerial installation groups and retailers to minimise the impact on viewers.

Ofcom’s plan builds on moves made at the last World Radio Conference, supported by African and Asian delegations, to make the 700MHz band available for mobile applications. Ofcom said that if these plans were confirmed at the 2015 conference it would move ahead with an auction. Other European governments have previously looked at higher frequency spectrum options such as the 3.6-3.8GHz bands for future mobile services.

The plans will involve a move by DTT services to the relatively underused 600MHz band. TV infrastructure provider Arqiva argued that Ofcom had yet to make the case for the change and the “huge disruption” it would cause.

“Freeview is the nation’s most popular way to watch television so Ofcom’s clear long term commitment to the platform is welcome.  Furthermore, there is a real opportunity for Ofcom to demonstrate that commitment by allocating spectrum in the immediate future for HD services in accordance with the proposals from the BBC, Channel 4 and Arqiva. However Ofcom has still yet to make the case to justify today’s proposed long term changes to allocate more future spectrum to mobile use, especially given the disruption they will cause to Freeview viewers,” said Charles Constable, chairman of DTT broadcast consortium Freeview. “Despite its enduring popularity, television has been the poor relation in terms of spectrum allocation for the development of new services.  Making this unused spectrum available will further enhance the HD channels offered on Freeview, giving something back to millions of viewers and encouraging a new era of HD content.”

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