UK spectrum set for massive sell-off

The U.K. radio communications industry is due for a big boost, with regulator Ofcom planning a massive consultation to sell off radio spectrum released when analogue TV is switched off.

In a few years’ time, if all goes well, there could be all the spectrum we need for wireless broadband, new mobile services and maybe some more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi like services.

Ofcom is opening the spectrum up in its new “technology-neutral” way, so different services can be switched on and off according to demand. The regulator is starting a Digital Dividend Review to decide how to use the spectrum that will be freed up.

The five terrestrial TV channels currently use nearly half the good bandwidth below 1GHz to broadcast analogue signals, according to a plan set up in the 1950s. Sending the data digitally would be six times as efficient.

By 2012, everyone is meant to have a digital receiver, and the analogue signals can be switched off, freeing up 112 MHz of UHF bandwidth for other applications. This spectrum is ideal for all sorts of applications, due to its long-range and good penetration of buildings.

Obviously, we could just shove a lot more TV channels into that spectrum, and make them high-definition and free-to-air through Freeview. But Ofcom wants to see more. The spectrum could be used to extend wireless into rural areas, as well as running different things, like interactive video on handheld devices.

“Historically, all uses of spectrum were decided by the Government or Government Agency,” says the Ofcom release. “This command-and-control approach allowed for minimal flexibility as technology and markets changed.”

To clear the dead wood away, Ofcom will have to change — or replace — the licences that broadcasters currently hold in those frequencies.

As well as unused spectrum, there will also be a lot of “interleaved” spectrum released. Outside of the range of one transmitter, spectrum is effectively available elsewhere in the country. At the moment, this extra spectrum is used in a piecemeal way for “program-making and sporting events,” outside broadcasts and radio microphone in theatres, but there is a lot more that could be done with it.

Like all radio consultations, there’s an international dimension. The switch over will happen first in places like Scotland which are not likely to interfere with the rest of Europe. Northern Ireland and the South of England will wait longest to allow for coordination with the similar changes going on in the Netherlands, France and Belgium.

Ofcom plans to get the review done by this time next year. It will put a program team together by the end of this year and start stakeholder meetings in 2006. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will have a meeting in May, which will feed into the final results.

The actual switch over will happen in 2008, and be complete by 2012.

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