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Implementing the second digital dividend: harmonisation is key – Comment from World Radio Conference 2012

Janette Stewart Principal, Consulting

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Radio Conference 2012 (WRC-12) has concluded with a decision to allocate additional UHF spectrum to mobile services in ITU Region 1 (consisting of Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East).

The new mobile allocation is to be made from 694–790MHz, and is proposed to come into force in 2015. The delay to 2015 is in order to enable the necessary technical studies to be concluded regarding the availability and assignment of the new band, before bringing the band into use. This 'second digital dividend' in ITU Region 1 is adjacent to the first digital dividend at 800MHz (from 790-862MHz), which was put into placed at the previous WRC, in 2007 (WRC-07).

Many regulators in Europe are either planning to award, or have already awarded, the 800MHz band for future mobile use, in accordance with a band plan harmonised across Europe through a European Commission decision, 2010/267/EC.[1] This is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Harmonised 800MHz band plan [Source: Analysys Mason, 2012]

Harmonised 800MHz band plan [Source: Analysys Mason, 2012]

Three principal factors have led to the decision to allocate a second digital dividend in ITU Region 1. Firstly, that it enables countries in Africa and the Middle East (where parts of the 800MHz band are used for other systems and services) to proceed with awarding digital dividend spectrum in the 700MHz band. Secondly, the 700MHz band provides additional bandwidth that can be used to accommodate mobile broadband services in Europe, in response to various estimates that the current spectrum availability for mobile broadband use may be insufficient to meet demand in future. Finally, the 700MHz allocation in Europe raises the prospect of harmonisation with other ITU world regions, where use of the 700MHz band (although a slightly different bandwidth, from 698-806MHz) was agreed at WRC-07.

However, implementing the new 700MHz allocation within ITU Region 1 will create a number of challenges, acknowledged by the ITU-R (ITU Radiocommunication Sector) in its decision that the new allocation should not come into force until 2015.

For many countries in Europe where digital terrestrial television (DTT) services are widely used at present, releasing 700MHz frequencies for mobile use will require a costly re-tune of existing networks. In some countries, this will be the second time that DTT services have been re-tuned, since many networks were already re-planned in order to release the first digital dividend. Although there are options to improve the capacity of DTT networks – such as the use of MPEG-4 coding and migration from DVB-T to DVB-T2 (the newer generation of DTT technology) – access to sufficient UHF spectrum is still essential in maintaining existing DTT networks and enabling services to expand (for example, by creating more multiplexes to carry additional digital channels). This is particularly the case in European countries where DTT is the main digital television viewing platform, which include the UK, Spain, France, Portugal and Italy. Given that a decision regarding allocation of the 700MHz band had not been anticipated at WRC-12 (and was expected to be an agenda item for the forthcoming conference, in 2015), it remains to be seen how DTT broadcasters will react, particularly in those countries where DTT is the predominant digital television platform.

Also note that ancillary broadcasting services (often referred to as programme making and special events, or PMSE) currently make use of frequency gaps between UHF channels allocated for DTT in many countries, by coordinating their transmissions with those of the television networks. Therefore, any re-planning of UHF frequencies will affect the future availability of spectrum for those services, which include wireless microphones and other applications used in theatres, sporting events and media events. Without access to the 700MHz spectrum, in addition to the 800MHz band, the bandwidth available for PMSE use is going to be severely constrained in comparison to the spectrum previously available.

There are a limited number of other frequencies that could be used by terrestrial broadcasting systems, and wireless microphones – VHF band III being the main alternative. It is not clear what alternative frequencies exist for use by PMSE. Although some countries have decided to use spectrum in VHF band III for the provision of additional digital terrestrial television services, others either already use VHF band III or plan to use it for other broadcasting services (such as digital radio), and so it is unavailable for digital terrestrial television (unless allocations to digital radio were to be reconsidered, and the spectrum reallocated to digital terrestrial television).

The other big challenge in making the 700MHz band available for mobile use is to determine an appropriate band plan that will facilitate harmonisation with other world regions. This is primarily because WRC-07 allocated a slightly different 700MHz band in other ITU regions (from
698–806MHz, which overlaps with the Region 1 800MHz band). Mobile licences to use the 700MHz band were first awarded in the USA, who have adopted a band plan that divides the 700MHz band into various paired and unpaired blocks, including a paired block (so-called 'D block') that is earmarked for use by public safety for future mobile broadband services. However, countries in the Asia–Pacific region have subsequently agreed to implement a different 700MHz band plan, which provides 45MHz of paired spectrum with a 10MHz duplex gap, similar to the European 800MHz band. Therefore, international harmonisation of the 700MHz band could be achieved, but not without detailed co-operation between the different ITU regions, given the current divergence in 700MHz deployments between the USA and parts of the Asia–Pacific. This is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Current regional 700MHz band plans [Source: Analysys Mason, 2012]

Current regional 700MHz band plans [Source: Analysys Mason, 2012]

Notwithstanding these challenges, the new 700MHz band could provide a solution for African and Middle Eastern countries to award further spectrum for mobile services without disrupting existing services in the 800MHz band. It could also provide Europe with much needed additional bandwidth for commercial mobile broadband services in the future, as well as possibly offering a solution to the needs of European public safety organisations, who are currently seeking additional spectrum for future mission-critical mobile broadband networks. The WRC-12's decision regarding the 700MHz band may prove to be timely for public safety users in Europe therefore, given that the need for action to address spectrum for mission critical networks is now reflected in Europe's five-year spectrum plan (Radio Spectrum Policy Programme), recently agreed by the European Parliament.

[1] Commission Decision of 6 May 2010 on harmonised technical conditions of use in the 790-862 MHz frequency band, available at