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A move to co-primary allocation of 470–694MHz at WRC-15 is unclear

Mark Colville Principal, Consulting

Spectrum requirements for both mobile broadband and DTT services are growing

While an increase in the demand for mobile broadband capacity is universally accepted, the exact level of traffic growth and hence precise amount of additional spectrum needed is uncertain. Different forecasters predict very different mobile data traffic levels in 2018. For example, Analysys Mason’s forecasts suggest an aggregate level of around 10 Exabytes in Western Europe, whilst Ericsson estimates a volume of nearly 27 Exabytes per annum.1  Whilst most forecasts in the public domain do not consider the longer term, it is natural to assume that views on traffic levels will become more divergent the further ahead one looks. 

There are many ways to cope with high traffic demand at specific locations within mobile networks, for example through Wi-Fi offload, improving throughput by employing the latest LTE-A technologies and/or an increase in site numbers, either by splitting macro cells or by adding additional cell layers (e.g. small cells). Nonetheless, it is generally accepted that more spectrum is likely to be required beyond that currently used in most markets, although the precise amount may vary by country. In Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the likely addition of the 700MHz band (which will be ratified at WRC-15) is expected to form a part of any solution. However, since low-frequency spectrum is particularly important for capacity at the edge of the cell, the remaining UHF spectrum (470–694MHz) has also been discussed as having potential for mobile service provision. 

This spectrum, however, is used by digital terrestrial television (DTT) in many markets. Even with the development of more efficient distribution standards, DTT could also require more spectrum in future as a result of the migration of channels from SD to HD and, in the future, to UHD. While there is some uncertainty over the exact additional bitrate requirements between SD and UHD services and the reduction in bitrate requirements due to coding efficiency gains between MPEG-2 and HEVC technologies, it is likely that there will be a net increase in spectrum requirements per multiplex in the coming years.  Furthermore, any requirement to simulcast different broadcast resolutions whilst DTT users upgrade receivers would further increase demand for spectrum from DTT services, exacerbating the problem.

Redefining a long-term plan for the whole UHF band has both advantages and disadvantages

The precise balance of need between mobile and DTT for UHF spectrum is not only hard to predict with accuracy, but also highly specific to national circumstances in the broadcasting market, since the DTT spectrum needs in one country may be very different from the spectrum needs in another country. For example, between countries where DTT is particularly important, such as Italy, and those where cable and IPTV delivery is more widely developed, such as Germany, a unilateral change in the spectrum allocation will have different implications.

Co-primary allocation of the entire UHF broadcasting spectrum from 470–694MHz to broadcasting and mobile, similar to the arrangement to be put into effect for the 700MHz band after WRC-15, has been suggested as a possibility for WRC-15 to decide. Such a co-primary allocation could, in principle, provide flexibility to individual countries to use the band for either broadcasting or mobile broadband services. However, while co-primary allocation is not a harmful concept per se, different uses of the band by neighbouring countries in the same region will likely result in significant costs to mitigate cross-border interference. Furthermore, the need for an early commitment to a band plan for mobile use may not be justified if only a small number of countries will change the use of sub-694MHz spectrum to mobile in the mid-term, noting that, in the longer term, it is by no means clear what the preferred configuration of mobile spectrum will be (e.g. in terms of how much contiguous spectrum each operator will need, and the type of assignment, whether paired or unpaired, and for bi-directional or downlink-only traffic). 

Additionally, it is important for policy makers to give investment certainty to broadcasters to the greatest extent possible, and a co-primary allocation of 470–694MHz may undermine this, particularly if it results in the mobile allocation being put into use across many markets more quickly than might otherwise have been envisaged. The pace of change that might result is evidenced by the rapid move towards clearing spectrum in the 700MHz band for mobile use in Europe since the WRC-12 resolution of co-primary allocation, despite European countries not initially supporting the co-primary 700MHz allocation during WRC-12. 

Given that in Analysys Mason’s view mobile operators are not likely to need the spectrum for at least the next 10–15 years, the case for co-primary allocation seems weak, suggesting any such decision at WRC-15 is likely to be premature.

Although this has been Analysys Mason’s view for a period of time, in recent months, three reports have been published by the RSPG,2  ECC3  and Pascal Lamy’s EU High Level Group.4  These reports have all expressed the view, to a greater or lesser extent, that 470–694MHz spectrum should remain allocated to DTT on a primary basis for the foreseeable future. It therefore appears that there is now increasing momentum behind retaining a primary allocation for broadcasting beyond WRC-15.

Analysys Mason is a leading adviser to operators and regulators on spectrum valuation, spectrum auctions and all spectrum management-related matters. For more information about our services, please contact Mark Colville, Principal, at mark.colville@analysysmason.com.

 


 

1 The discrepancy in these forecasts could be in part due to different treatment of traffic offloaded to Wi-Fi. Nonetheless, it is clear that there are significant differences in medium- and long-term forecasts from different sources
2 RSPG Opinion on Common Policy Objectives for WRC-15, 12 November 2014, http://rspg-spectrum.eu/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/RSPG14-578rev1-Draft_Opinion_WRC-15.pdf
3 ECC draft Long Term Vision for the UHF broadcasting band, Report 234
4 Pascal Lamy, Report to the European Commission, ‘Results of the work of the High Level Group on the future use of the UHF band (470–790 MHz), 1 September 2014