The UK is consulting but the decision seems to have been taken. Many other European countries are following suit and the challenge now is to make sure this is a genuine win-win for everybody, consumers and broadcasters included.
Listening to a recent speech by Ofcom board member Patricia Hodgson, you could be forgiven for thinking that the UK had already decided to allocate 700 MHz to mobile.
… the real challenge is to make sure that consumers and broadcasters don’t have to pay for somebody else’s party
“We will work actively towards international harmonisation and release of the 700 MHz band for mobile broadband,” she said. It would be rather odd if you meant releasing it in other countries but not the UK, I thought.
“At the same time we are taking steps to secure the future of DTT by making alternative spectrum available in the 600 MHz band and supporting a platform transition to more efficient broadcast standards,” Dame Patricia told theSpectrum and Innovation conference, organized by the French frequency agency ANFR. Why would DTT’s future need securing or why make 600 available if you hadn’t already decided on the move?
The BBC’s head of spectrum projects, Catherine Smadja, said she was “a little surprised by Patricia’s contribution. In the UK, as I understood, we are still consulting people and no decision has been made on allocation of 700 MHz”.
The French minister for the digital economy, Fleur Pellerin, certainly doesn’t think so. Confirming the French government’s intention to release the 700 MHz band for mobile, she said they were following the same policy as the UK and Germany. (Like the UK, Germany is also at the consultation stage.)
So I asked someone who is in a very good position to know the UK’s plans and off the record they said that yes, it was a done deal. “The only thing missing is that the government hasn’t signed on the dotted line,” he said.
Do we need 700 MHz?
In the interests of a balanced argument we should note the objections of the BBC, who believe the move hasn’t been subject to a proper cost/benefit analysis. Smadja said the demand for new services was not really proven: “Mobile consumption is very limited and mostly it is done at home via WiFi. What will happen in 2016? We don’t know. We should see what happens when 800 MHz is deployed. There is no hurry, we don’t need another 100 MHz just now.”
Smadja pointed out that “completely renovating our distribution system” was bound to be costly and would involve a period of expensive simulcasting.
“What will ordinary people gain from the move to 600?” she asked. “We haven’t taken into account the needs of consumers and they won’t get a lot back,” she said.
A fair deal for all
So what is my point? Consultations are often a foregone conclusion, and no surprise that this should apply to countries in stricken economic circumstances thinking about joining a mobile band which is likely to be globally harmonised.
There’s a probability of economic growth and a near certainty of auction proceeds in the hundreds of millions: which government would say no?
Is it a win-win or does somebody lose out? The consumer is a loser if they have to buy new equipment. Sure, some may have upgraded anyway but for some it will be an extra expense that brings few benefits in terms of new services.
Broadcasters could also be losers. They should not have to pay for a move which has been imposed on them.
If 700 MHz consultations are over before they even begin, then the real challenge is to make sure that consumers and broadcasters don’t have to pay for somebody else’s party.•