Everything you ought to know about WRC-12?

The rules governing the use of the radio frequency spectrum, as far as they affect interference to neighbouring countries, are set down in the ITU Radio Regulations.  Every few years, the world’s Administrations meet to decide on any changes that are needed.  The latest meeting, World Radio Conference 2012, took place in Geneva in February 2012.  

After the meeting, many European broadcasters felt run over by a herd of buffalo.   In an unprecedented move, the conference decided on something not on its agenda.  This was that a part of the radio frequency spectrum hitherto given over to terrestrial television broadcasting, the band between 700MHz and 800Hz, in the broadcasting ‘Region 1’ that includes Europe, Africa and greater Russia, should be given over to IMT systems (largely wireless broadband internet) from 2015.    This passing of the spectrum is called the ‘second digital dividend’, and follows the give-away of the 800MHz broadcast band to IMT in 2007, the ‘first digital dividend’.    Though serious, this first digital dividend was not considered terminal by terrestrial broadcasters.  

There were some subtleties to the recent WRC-12 decision.  The 700MHz band from 2015 will have both broadcasting and IMT as ‘co-primary’ services, so in theory individual European countries could still decide to continue its use for broadcasting.   The money is on that they will not, and will be attracted by the thought of selling off a large slice of spectrum for much needed cash.   The other subtlety is that the ‘bottom’ of the co-primary band is not yet defined, so it could even go lower than 700MHz.   In theory IMT could even eventually swallow the whole broadcasting band.  

Representatives of about 60 concerned organisations met in March 2012 at the EBU in Geneva to try to do more than wag a finger in the air and complain.    The request for this band to be given over to IMT was made at WRC-12 by African and Arab states (who fall into the same ITU Region as Europe).  There, in many cases, the 700MHz band is actually very little used for television broadcasting, though it is assigned to it.     Furthermore, many do not have access to the band above, the 800MHz band, which in Europe is now assigned to IMT, and is being auctioned by governments progressively across Europe.

But understanding why the African and Arab states want the band for IMT does not help European broadcasters.  Many of them filled up the bands with television broadcasting in the analogue days, and had every intention of doing so again in the digital television age.    If they have already used some of the 800MHz band for digital terrestrial television, or have plans to do so, they are in for a messy time if they have to clear out of the band – and maybe their viewing public is too.   The euphemism for this is called ‘re-packing’.    

One of the biggest headaches of loosing this band for broadcasting may be that television has to be less ‘regional’ or local, because only a smaller number of digital multiplexes will be possible – this will drop form six to four.    Yet regional broadcasting is almost the ‘raison d’être’ for terrestrial broadcasting in many countries, so you can imagine the annoyance the decision caused. 

One thing the delegates at the Geneva meeting in March agreed is that they need to act together, and work with others who believe in digital television broadcasting, such as the TV transmitter companies, and the consumer electronics industry.   It is likely that a ‘stakeholders’ group will now be formed, to understand the true impact for the public of the loss of this band.  

Will the loss stifle the future of television broadcasting?   Will it prevent migration to High Definition television, which the public will demand in the years ahead?  Further on than that, there is 3DTV and UHDTV, not to mention the fact that the public expects a large choice of programme channels to be available.  Can we trust Administrations who did not ‘play by the rules’ by slipping in the most important decision of the conference outside the agenda?   

It may be that high technical quality programming can be provided by wireless broadband internet, and which could therefore act as a ‘substitute’ for broadcasting – if enough spectrum is available.   There would be technical and social consequences if this happens.      

Those present in Geneva in March hoped that the journey has begun to find answers to the questions above.  But one delegate put his finger on the 64,000 dollar unknown:  “Can digital terrestrial television in Europe survive the second digital dividend?”