Securing the Future of the UK’s DTT Platform

The future of the digital terrestrial TV (DTT) platform is close to our hearts, as well as our broadcast customers…

Our Crystal Palace tower transmits DTT services

Our Crystal Palace tower transmits DTT services

The digital terrestrial TV platform is close to our hearts at Arqiva. DTT remains the most popular television platform in the UK with a presence in over 75% of households, that’s 17 million homes. DTT also represents 45% of total viewing time in the UK, this is more than cable and Sky services put together.

With the continued popularity and relevance of the platform and the significant UK investment in DTT to date, including our successful delivery of Digital Switchover in 2012, securing the future success and development of the platform is critical for us and our broadcast customers.

In November, I attended the World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 (WRC-15) in Geneva, where key decisions would be made at an international level which could impact the DTT platform.

Spectrum – a scarce resource, critical to the future of the DTT platform

The radio frequencies in the UHF band (spectrum) available for use by digital terrestrial TV (DTT) is a scarce resource and securing it’s availability is critical to the future of the platform in the UK.

At the time of analogue TV, when the television transmissions were not as robust as digital and we could only transmit 4 or 5 programmes, terrestrial TV in the UK had access to 368 MHz in the frequency range 470 – 862 MHz. Following the switch to digital in 2012 and the release of the 800 MHz spectrum (790 – 862 MHz) for mobile broadband services, the spectrum available to terrestrial TV in the UK was reduced to 304 MHz in the frequency range 470 – 790 MHz; being digital we can now carry in excess of 60 TV channels plus a number of radio and data services – a significant increase on the 4 or 5 programmes carried in the days of analogue. The release of 800 MHz spectrum was a European decision to provide spectrum for the introduction of mobile broadband services.

As African countries could not benefit from the 800 MHz digital dividend and the associated introduction of mobile broadband services (LTE), it was decided by the international community (the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)) to also make 700 MHz spectrum available to mobile for mobile broadband services (LTE). Consequently broadcasting is scheduled to be squeezed yet again and the release of the 700 MHz spectrum (694 – 790 MHz) will limit terrestrial TV in the UK to 216 MHz in the frequency range 470 – 694 MHz.

Unlike 800 MHz where it was the base stations that could potentially interfere with DTT, with 700 MHz it is the handsets and this required a review of technical standards. In the process of developing the technical standards to enable the mobile service to be introduced into the 700 MHz band we worked alongside Ofcom to minimise the potential for disruption to the broadcast service below 700 MHz.

Arqiva and the UK broadcast community working with Ofcom now have the task of planning and deploying a modified DTT network in the remaining spectrum that delivers the existing DTT coverage and which has the capacity to carry the same proportion of content as is available to viewers today – a very challenging task but one we are embracing.

Preparing for WRC-15

Mark Jordan (left) and Peter Couch (right) at the World Radiocommunication Conference in November 2015Approximately every four years the member nations of the ITU (presently 193 countries) gather in Geneva for a World Radiocommunication Conference, an event where the use of the RF spectrum and rules associated with that use are agreed. The focus of each Conference is to agree the appropriate regulatory framework and the technical work to be undertaken prior to the next conference.

The period between the end of the 2012 conference and the start of WRC-15 was particularly important and busy for us and the broadcast industry. The 2012 conference identifying the 700 MHz spectrum for the mobile broadband service and the potential future use of the remaining UHF broadcasting spectrum (470 – 694 MHz) for mobile broadband services meant that broadcasters had to assess the impact to their services.

During the study cycle between the 2012 and 2015 conferences, the broadcast community had three main tasks;

  • To ensure that rules governing 700 MHz mobile broadband services didn’t disrupt the broadcast service below 700 MHz;
  • To persuade countries that terrestrial broadcasting remains an important means for audio-visual content delivery and that no more spectrum should be surrendered; and
  • Once there was an acceptance of the need to secure the remaining spectrum for terrestrial broadcasting then it should not be subject to further scrutiny for some time – at least for the foreseeable future.

The future of the 700 MHz band agreed

Protecting DTT from interference from the mobile broadband service to be launched in the 700 MHz band was particularly challenging. The relevant mobile industry standards body had already defined the service characteristics and these had been accepted by countries in ITU Region 2 and 3 (the Americas and Asia ) as adequate for protecting broadcasting. Studies in Europe concluded otherwise and the European broadcasting community therefore had to persuade Region 1 countries (those in Europe, Africa, the Arab states and the Russian Commonwealth) that more stringent technical characteristics were necessary.

Significant technical work and lobbying resulted in success for the European broadcast community and hence Europe has determined that the interference from the mobile handset should be 50 times lower than previously defined by the mobile industry standard. The broadcast community globally will benefit from this European action as the mobile standard has subsequently been modified to acknowledge European requirements. This is likely to become the industry standard to minimise complexity and cost in device manufacture. Following these intensive international activities to agree the technical characteristics of the 700 MHz band, WRC-15 adopted these technical standards and introduced them to the regulations governing this frequency range, enabling countries to introduce mobile broadband services into the band.

The future of the remaining DTT spectrum

With the 800 MHz and 700 MHz bands now already committed to mobile broadband services, it was unlikely that more broadcast spectrum would be ceded to mobile. However, we wanted to ensure this was the case and that a sensible decision was reached about the future use of the remaining DTT spectrum.

It was via participation in and contribution to, European studies such as the Lamy report and the report of the CEPT TG6 group alongside significant lobbying at national and European level that the value of terrestrial television in Europe was demonstrated and established. From this came a joint European position that stated that terrestrial television had a role in the distribution of audio-visual content and as such needed to be protected. Collaboration with the broadcasting unions in the other parts of the world meant that by the time we arrived at WRC-15 the majority of countries in the world opposed a change to the rules that protected the remaining terrestrial spectrum from alternative uses, e.g. mobile broadband. During the conference, despite significant lobbying by the mobile industry alongside the United States, New Zealand, Mexico and Egypt, it was confirmed that no changes would be made to the regulatory rules that governed the use of the broadcast spectrum at this conference; it was protected.

Following this sensible decision, the broadcast community had to ensure that the question of its allocation to mobile would not be revisited at the next conference WRC-19. Again lobbying by broadcasters was successful and moving forward there will be not be an allocation for mobile but rather there will a further discussion about the UHF band in 2023, but the scope and topic of that discussion will be confirmed at WRC-19.

Remaining committed to the future of DTT

We played a key role in ensuring the practical decision was reached around the future use of DTT spectrum. We were arguably fundamental in making Broadcast Networks Europe (BNE), the industry body representing the owners and operators of broadcast infrastructure, effective in its efforts at lobbying at a European level. We coordinated BNE effort with the EBU ensuring a consistent and powerful message to the decision makers from across the whole of the broadcast industry. We also provided the technical expertise that allowed BNE and the broadcast industry to challenge the technical standard with the resulting improvement in protection of terrestrial television. Furthermore, working with the EBU in addition to German and French transmission providers we were able to demonstrate that mobile based technologies were not a viable alternative to existing terrestrial television, thus undermining the case for mobile use of the broadcast spectrum.

As the WRC process is international the co-ordination effort included the broadcast industry representatives from Asia, the Americas, Africa, Middle East, Europe and the Russian Commonwealth. Through leveraging our contacts within these communities we were able to influence Government representatives to ensure that there was a broad coalition of Administrations across the globe seeking to protect the broadcasting service.

With the sensible decision reached around the future use of DTT spectrum we can now focus on delivering the 700 MHz clearance programme. Whilst the platform remains popular and relevant for broadcasters and the UK consumer, we remain committed to its future development.