It's time to talk about TV
Isn't it time for an open debate about broadcasters' use of UHF spectrum?
If you talk to spectrum liberalisers many say TV is inefficient and doesn't need so much spectrum. Talk to broadcasting engineers and they say high tower high power is in fact the best way to deliver a high bandwidth service to so many people.
Until now these have been behind-the-scenes whisperings but here at PolicyTracker we have tried to report them whenever they have surfaced (e.g. Finland).
However, the muttering is becoming louder. The interest in a second mobile sub band in UHF is growing in Europe and the Middle East. 700 MHz is likely to be identified as a possible mobile band at WRC-12.
Noting these developments the UK has just started a a consultation on developing a long term framework for the future use of UHF. And in the US the FCC and many politicians see incentive auctions as a way to encourage TV companies to vacate UHF.
Pressure on broadcasters is growing as never before and it is time for an open debate. Why? Because this needs to be a discussion about achieving socially important policy goals, not about who “owns” the spectrum, who is “giving it up” or who is the most efficient.
So what are broadcasting's social goals? To boil it down:
Providing important information for citizens, like news and covering political debate
Representing geographic and ethnic diversity, so bringing nations together
Covering important cultural events
Supporting a local broadcasting industry (or the cultural coverage is unlikely to materialise!)
Universal service (or you can't bring a nation together!)
Do you need terrestrial TV to achieve these goals? The answer will vary from country to country, depending on levels of TV platform penetration. Terrestrial TV may make sense in countries where it has guaranteed universal service, like the the UK and Spain, but little sense in Bahrain where its penetration is effectively 0% compared with 96% for satellite.
We must also ask whether these goals are achieved mainly by the public subsidy of broadcasting production or whether TV companies need access to UHF spectrum as well.
Can terrestrial cope with HDTV?
Neither can this debate stand still. Terrestrial TV's case may well be weakened by the impending growth of HDTV, where satellite or cable can deliver many more channels, or the superior functionality of IPTV. Conversely, it could be strengthened by a wider economic slump.
We should also be considering compromise solutions like universal terrestrial service for a more limited number of channels or reducing the coverage requirement for terrestrial and “filling in” with satellite.
The most important thing is having an open and public debate. Whatever is chosen, governments have to bring the public with them. Mutterings between experts are not enough.
PolicyTracker Managing Editor