Ofcom announces spectrum blueprint for the next decade

Ofcom has published its blueprint for the future use of radiocommunications frequencies over the next decade, including how it would like to convert more of the frequencies used for TV services to mobile broadband.

The Spectrum Management Strategy sets Ofcom’s strategic approach and priorities for managing radio spectrum, which underpins all wireless services, amidst a desire from mobile network operators to claim large portions of spectrum for their own use, and the Government's desire to raise more money from selling further blocks of frequencies.

Applications that use this invisible but valuable resource include: mobile phones and tablets, TV and radio broadcasting, communications for the emergency services, aeronautical communications, wireless cameras, microphones, smart-meters and wearable communications devices.

However, the changes proposed could require householders in some regions to change their TV aerials, and has already raised concerns over the shortage of available frequencies for TV services in areas such as Kent.

According to Ofcom, this work "complements the Government’s aim to double the contribution that spectrum services make to the UK economy to £100bn a year by 2025."

Ofcom has identified six priority areas for future spectrum use. They are:
1. Future mobile data demands: Ofcom will also contribute to international decisions, examine in detail the case for using more spectrum for mobile data, support improvements in mobile coverage and monitor developments towards 5G technology.
2. The future of the 700MHz band and free-to-view TV: Ofcom is investigating the potential to rearrange the bands used for digital terrestrial TV. This could release more of this prime spectrum for mobile broadband use sometime after 2018, while ensuring that viewers would continue to benefit from digital terrestrial TV. This is the area that has the potential to create the greatest impact and inconvenience to householders.
3. Public sector spectrum release: Ofcom will support the Government in achieving its target to release 500 MHz of spectrum from the public sector. A first step will be the release of spectrum at 2.3 and 3.4 GHz, currently held by the Ministry of Defence.
4. Programme Making and Special Events: Ofcom is working with PMSE stakeholders to understand their current and future spectrum demands for wireless microphones and cameras.
5.Machine-to-Machine applications: Ofcom has started work to understand the implications of the expected growth in M2M. Enabling licence exempt access to the 870-915 MHz band is a first step towards ensuring spectrum availability to support innovation in this area. The UK is among the first countries globally to release spectrum that can support M2M communications.
6.The emergency services: Ofcom will support the Government is assessing how best to deliver the wireless communications needs of the emergency services over the long term.

Of the future of the TV frequencies at 700 MHz, Ofcom said: "Digital Terrestrial Television [DTT] remains one of the primary means by which UK TV households receive TV services. It is the sole means of TV reception for over 40% of UK TV households and is used by many more in combination with other TV platforms. Levels of linear television viewing are remaining stable despite consumers accessing more catch-up and video-on-demand services through the internet. This is likely to sustain the relevance of DTT for many years.

"Over time, there may be a shift toward higher video quality over all TV broadcastplatforms in the coming years as High Definition (HD) and even Ultra High Definition(UHD) programming becomes increasingly available, requiring greater capacity. However, use of new standards such as DVB-T2 and MPEG-4 could mitigate capacity requirements by allowing for more information to be carried over the same amount of spectrum. Going forward the adoption of HEVC will improve the efficiency of video compression further."

Ofcom is expected to engage further with broadcasters over the future of free-to-view television via terrestrial TV.

On Thursday, Freeview platform manager Digital UK's Caroline Thomson will discuss the threat to digital terrestrial television and the Freeview service through gentle erosion of frequencies for mobile phone use at the Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV) Spring Conference.

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