The United Kingdom communications regulator Ofcom has published a consultation on plans to free up some of the frequencies used for digital terrestrial television services, to make the 700MHz band available for mobile use by 2022, if not sooner. Ofcom sees a continuing role for digital terrestrial television until at least 2030, although it suggests the broadcasting industry needs to develop a roadmap for the further evolution of services.

Ofcom is attempting to balance the needs for broadcast television with those for mobile broadband and other wireless services, within the international obligations relating to radiofrequency spectrum.

“Our plans will allow digital terrestrial TV to thrive, while ensuring the UK’s mobile infrastructure can support consumer demand and economic growth,” said Ed Richards, the chief executive of Ofcom.

Ofcom says that digital terrestrial television will continue to perform a vital role in providing viewers with near-universal access to public service television channels. It is also encouraging the industry to develop new services to allow digital terrestrial television to evolve, noting that current free platforms will only remain popular if they move in line with wider market developments.

Digital terrestrial television transmissions currently provide the primary television service in around 39% of homes in the United Kingdom, although 74% use the platform in some form, including secondary sets.

Demand for data services has grown with the adoption of smartphones and is likely to increase with more wireless communication between devices. One forecast suggests that demand for mobile broadband data could be 45 times higher by 2030.

Freeing up frequencies from 694 to 790 MHz, generally known as the 700MHz band, currently used for digital television and other applications such as programme making and special events, will enable mobile network operators to meet increasing demand for access to mobile broadband services.

These frequencies have particularly favourable characteristics in terms of reach and the ability to pass through walls. The frequency band is also used or likely to be used in other countries for mobile services, creating economies of scale for equipment manufacturers.

Ofcom is considering the potential auction of licences in the 700 MHz band, possibly as early as 2016, although the spectrum may not be available for use nationally until 2022.

There is also wider international debate about the future of the 470-694MHz band, which is also currently used for digital terrestrial television. The next World Radio Conference, to be held in 2015, is likely to consider whether this should be co-allocated to mobile services as well as television broadcasts.

As a result, industry lobby groups are lining up to make their case either to preserve existing broadcasting capacity or to make it available for mobile use.

The current assumption is that it would still be possible to deliver six national multiplexes for digital terrestrial television in the United Kingdom within the remaining available frequencies.

There are various options available, from simply shifting frequencies to implementing regional or national single frequency networks. The proposals favour band plans that involve minimum changes for consumers and appear minded to reject more radical options, such as using approaches based on mobile network infrastructure.

Ofcom suggests “whilst we cannot exclude the potential for more radical changes, our base case view remains that DTT will continue to be an important delivery technology for free to view TV over the next decade.”

It currently expects digital terrestrial television to continue until at least 2030, which may be beyond the foreseeable future, but nevertheless acknowledges that the current mode of digital transmission, developed in the 1990s, will not continue forever.

The key question is what happens then and what needs to be done to get there.

Ofcom says it would like to see industry drive a long-term strategy for free-to-view television that includes a credible upgrade path for digital terrestrial television.”

The regulator considers the role of IPTV and satellite distribution, as well as the potential for mobile technology to deliver television services.

Ofcom places the onus on the industry, effectively on platforms like Freeview, to develop a clear roadmap for their services. It says: “rather than undertaking regulatory intervention to initiate changes to the DTT platform we see an essential role for industry stakeholders.”

Current DTT multiplex licences extend until either 2022 or 2026, which Ofcom suggests could deter the development of digital terrestrial television. However, it suggests that any possible uncertainty can only be addressed in the context of a clear long-term strategy from industry on the future of DTT.

Although 2030 may still seem a long way off, broadcasters need to begin planning now how to evolve their platforms. Most industry debate is relatively short term in outlook and fails to address the change that could take place over the next decade or so.

It is only seven years since the launch of the Apple iPhone triggered a smartphone revolution and only four years since the launch of the Apple iPad. Given the pace of technology change, it seems unlikely that people will be watching television in the same way in ten or fifteen years time.

While the continuing importance of digital terrestrial television in some countries is recognised, unless there is a strategy for long term evolution of broadcasting, existing legacy platforms could become increasingly irrelevant.

Current thinking appears to be based on preserving the characteristics of existing broadcast technology to minimise the negative impact on consumers, rather than embracing more radical options.

What is missing in the econometric modelling and frequency planning is any sense of real excitement about the sorts of services that could be provided to consumers through a shift in thinking about what television might look like in a decade or so and how it might best be delivered in the future.

The Great Spectrum Debate at the IBC Conference in Amsterdam, produced and chaired by William Cooper of informitv, will focus on the relative public value of the use of spectrum by broadcast and mobile broadband services.