A European Commission report recommends releasing some spectrum currently used for terrestrial television broadcasting to allow use by wireless broadband services from around 2020, if not sooner. However, subject to review in 2025, it recommends retaining lower frequencies primarily for broadcasting until at least 2030. The relative value of using scarce spectrum resources for television broadcasting or mobile broadband will be the subject of a highly topical debate at the IBC Conference in Amsterdam.

The broadband and broadcasting sectors are lining up to lobby for retaining or gaining access to key UHF spectrum, which has characteristics that make it particularly useful for certain applications.

Broadcasters are keen to retain spectrum for terrestrial television transmissions, while telecommunications companies argue the need to expand capacity for wireless broadband services.

The International Telecommunications Union has determined that the 694-790 MHz frequency range, generally known as the 700 MHZ band, should be available for use by mobile services worldwide. These frequencies have traditionally been used for television broadcasting in Europe, although the use of terrestrial television as opposed to satellite or cable varies from country to country. In Belgium only 4% of homes use terrestrial television, while in Italy it is as high as 80%.

Some European countries, such as Germany, have already decided to allocate the 700 MHz band for wireless broadband, while others, including the United Kingdom are consulting on such proposals.

The report, based on six months of industry consultation, was written by Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organisation and a former European Commissioner for Trade.

Given the differing objectives of various stakeholders in the ‘High Level Group’ convened by Neelie Kroes, the vice president of the European Commission, it seems it was not possible to achieve consensus and some compromise appears inevitable.

The report recognises the importance of free to air terrestrial television and the rising demand for mobile broadband, with data traffic increasing at 50% a year. It concludes that coexistence is necessary in the medium term convergence of both platforms is “not on the practical policy agenda yet”.

He said: “For too long the broadband and broadcasting communities have been at loggerheads about the use of the UHF spectrum band. There have been many different views and perspectives. On the basis of discussions with the two sectors, I have put forward a single scheme that could provide a way forward for Europe to thrive in the digital century.”

The report recommends dedicating the 700 MHz band, currently used by terrestrial broadcasting networks and wireless microphones, to wireless broadband across Europe by 2020, plus or minus a couple of years.

It recommends a review by 2025 to assess technology and market developments, while retaining the remaining UHF spectrum from for terrestrial broadcasting until 2030.

This proposal is referred to as the “20-25-30” model, aimed at supporting the co-existence of broadcast and broadband services for the foreseeable future, while providing flexibility across the region.

Meanwhile the report recommends that at the World Radiocommunications Conference in 2015 Europe should reject any plans for the primary allocation of the 470-694 MHz band to mobile networks.

Pascal Lamy concludes his report writing: “I am fully aware of the high political sensitivity of my recommendations and the fact that these are not fully backed by an explicit agreement within the High Level Group. However, we should be aware about the pace of changes we face and what is at stake if we just wait and may believe that staying in our comfort zone could last forever.”

The Great Spectrum Debate at the IBC Conference in Amsterdam on 11 September, chaired by William Cooper of informitv, will see two teams debate the motion: “This house believes that mobile broadband providers can deliver greater public value from the spectrum used for terrestrial television than broadcasters.”

John Giusti, head of spectrum policy at the GSMA, will lead the team arguing for the motion. The GSMA argues that the 700 MHz band should be released for mobile broadband as soon as possible, while limiting the possible co-existence of broadcast and mobile broadband services at lower frequencies could put Europe at a competitive disadvantage.

Simon Fell, head of technology and innovation at the EBU, will lead the team opposing the motion. He said: “The EBU believes safeguarding spectrum below 700MHz will enable public service broadcasters and the European audiovisual sector to continue reaching all sectors of the population, sustain broader content choice, and secure investments and innovation over the long term.”

There is a great deal at stake for both broadcasters and broadband service providers. The debate is not simply about spectrum, but the relative importance of ubiquitous access to television and internet services.

Results of the Work of the High Level Group on the Future Use of the UHF Band (470-790 MHz) is available from the European Commission web site.