Blog

BBC’s all-online wish is likely a distant prospect

The world’s biggest broadcaster will soon move completely online, says the BBC director general, Tim Davie, with terrestrial TV and radio channels replaced by IP services. But how soon? Here he is vague—just saying we are in a “defining decade"—which implies that BBC terrestrial will either be on its way out by 2030 or may have left the building entirely.  What does this mean for spectrum policy? Taking Davie’s words…
| Martin Sims

The world’s biggest broadcaster will soon move completely online, says the BBC director general, Tim Davie, with terrestrial TV and radio channels replaced by IP services. But how soon? Here he is vague—just saying we are in a “defining decade"—which implies that BBC terrestrial will either be on its way out by 2030 or may have left the building entirely. 

What does this mean for spectrum policy? Taking Davie’s words at face value, it is good news for the mobile industry. Soon the BBC won’t need its coveted UHF TV frequencies and mobile will be able to move into the 600 MHz band.

But should we take his words at face value? I think not. Davie has made a radical pitch which is big on vision and short on detail. The implementation is an enormous multi-dimensional task which makes any clean break with terrestrial broadcasting a huge ask.

Purists may think spectrum policy is about making the most efficient use of the airwaves but for broadcasting, it’s often about national politics. Davie’s speech is notable because it brings in geopolitics as well.

For Davie, IP is the future and if the BBC does not move to all digital, that space will be captured by “vast US and Chinese players" who will “marginalise us,” meaning that the UK’s “culture and creative economy will inevitably be shaped by polarised platforms and overseas content”. The BBC is the world's biggest broadcaster and to maintain that position it needs to take the fight to the new digital space. “The Russians and Chinese are investing hundreds of millions in state-backed services,” he warns.

The UK’s Conservative government greatly admires private sector streaming platforms like Netflix, and Davie’s argument follows the time-honoured tradition of re-packaging BBC values and ethos to appeal in the current political climate. 

But if the polls are correct, the Conservatives will lose the next election in 2024 and be replaced by the Labour party, which is more left-wing. Will Davie, a former Conservative local official, change his tune? Or will the BBC get a new lead singer? 

What Davie doesn't address is the grandparents problem. Terrestrial TVs (and radios) have a fundamental magic that seems so self-evident it is often overlooked. Switch them on and they work! Buy a new one, press the button and within minutes the policy goal is satisfied—you can enjoy the programming.

How often can we say the same thing about broadband? Set-up can be complex and it often requires an engineer’s home visit.  How many grandparents can set up a smart TV? My 90-year-old parents certainly couldn’t and they are quite tech-savvy. They still can’t watch catch-up on one channel because the player does not work on their TV’s operating system!

These problems can be eased with more user-friendly devices and as time progresses the population gets better at managing technology.  

But let’s move back to the home of broadcasting—politics. No political party—let alone the Conservatives, who get the most votes from the elderly—can ever contemplate a situation where many grandparents lose access to TV. 

The ruling party would have to guarantee that, as Davie puts it, “no one gets left behind”. Doesn’t that mean a personal home visit for anybody who can’t get connected? How expensive would that be?  

Can the whole population afford the broadband connection that will be needed to watch TV? Certainly not. Will the government make it free for the poorest? What about those who are out of reach of fixed-line connections? How will they get signals?

If the current TV licence fee is scrapped, as the current government has suggested, some people will have to buy a broadband connection instead i.e. they will stop paying a public body for their TV and have to pay a private company instead. How will that sit politically?

Faced with this plethora of questions, a mixed economy of TV delivery methods—terrestrial included—looks likely for many years to come. And if a new government takes over, the BBC may start singing a different tune. Furthermore, neither Ofcom nor the BBC is recommending a mobile allocation in UHF at WRC-23.

I set out to write about spectrum policy and I have written about national politics. That’s broadcasting for you.

Blog

Comments

  • Andrew Reid says:

    One other point  worth considering is the scalability of broadcasting. At times of immense interest, such as breaking news or a major sporting event, the load on a broadcaster’s network is the same as if 100 people were watching a re-run of Neighbours 🙂 Here in Australia, for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Optus’s online delivery platform failed spectacularly and they had to start sharing their rights with SBS, a broadcaster, so people could actually watch the games. It’s true that there is a move from broadcasting to online content. To be honest, I’m more interested in whether the commercial broadcasters can continue to survive rather than the public broadcasters. Some consolidation is inevitable. But I still think we are looking at a mixed model for a while yet.

Img Alt

Newsletter

Discover why hundreds of regulators and technology companies use our services

SUBSCRIBE
Comments
Regulators should prioritise social welfare, not infrastructure targets
Richard, thanks for amending the text...." by Nikolai Shienok
Feb 16, 2024
Regulators should prioritise social welfare, not infrastructure targets
Thanks for spotting this Nikolai. We've..." by Richard Haas
Feb 16, 2024
Regulators should prioritise social welfare, not infrastructure targets
“Cash auctions are harder to..." by Nikolai Shienok
Feb 16, 2024
European working group examines sharing options for upper 6 GHz band
The whole 6 GHz band has 1200 MHz and..." by Stefan Zehle
Feb 15, 2024
Dutch finalise decision on 450 MHz use
The RDI announced yesterday (January..." by Mirva Villa
Jan 23, 2024