WRC – The story so far

I’ve mentioned WRC here before, and today the meeting has opened in Geneva, with 3,800 delegates from over 160 member states and more than 130 organisations represented.

But what is it, and why should you care? To help explain, I thought I’d provide a summary, together with some useful links.

The quick summary is that WRC-15 is the latest in series of meetings where countries around the world meet to agree on various aspects of radio communications. That can even include things like whether or not leap seconds are needed, but the main thing I’ve been looking at and writing about is the allocation of radio spectrum – the bits of the airwaves that are used for things like TV, mobile phones, radio microphones in theatres, and things like that.

The more these are co-ordinated at an international level, the easier it is for companies to make equipment that can be sold anywhere. People who’ve had mobile phones since the 90s may well remember that for a long while, if you were planning on going to the USA, you had to make sure you had a compatible phone. Now, of course, most phones work on a wider range of frequencies, but it’s still simplest if the same ones can be used everywhere.

At the last WRC meeting, in 2012, there was an agreement to change the use of a band of spectrum, known as the 700MHz band, to clear TV from it and make it available for mobile broadband. This was, to some, rather unexpected, and the upshot of it is that in five to seven years, people will have to retune their TV sets – and maybe lose a few channels – so that the space can be given over to mobile companies.

At this WRC meeting, there’s a similar agenda item, regarding “co-primary allocation” of the bit of spectrum that’s currently exclusively allocated to TV broadcasting. That’s in the range from 470-694MHz.

When this proposal was first put on the agenda, I wrote about it on The Register, and urged people to respond to the consultation, saying that a “co-primary” allocation should be opposed.

That’s because most people who understand how TV broadcasting and interference work don’t believe that the space can be used for both mobile broadband and TV at the same time – and in huge areas of the world, especially Europe, people still rely on TV reception through an aerial.

I’m happy to say that Ofcom will be opposing the co-primary allocation at the WRC, and so too is Europe, via the EBU – the organisation that represents public service broadcasters. In fact, all the countries in the broadcasting region that includes Europe, known as ITU Region 1, oppose it. That includes Africa as well.

Things aren’t so clear cut in the Americas – in the US and Canada, for example, broadcast TV is much less important, and the big mobile companies there would love some extra space for broadband, so there may yet be pressure at WRC for a change – sometimes, unexpected things happen during all the horse-trading at meetings like this.

The EBU published a report recently, which explains how difficult is is to share frequencies between TV and LTE (mobile data), and I wrote about that on The Register too. Essentially, though, to avoid interference you need massive distances between systems.

If you used LTE in the Netherlands, for instance – where most people have cable, so you might not think it’s too important – it would still be causing interference issues as far away as Northern France – and they do use broadcast television much more.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that, for the forseeable future at any rate, broadcast is a much better way of getting TV programmes to people than anything else. As long as people want TV at home, it’s likely to remain the most efficient method. Right now, the BBC spends 12% of all their distribution costs – that’s getting programmes to viewers, via satellite, TV transmitters, and so on – on iPlayer. That’s a fairly big chunk – and its spend to get those programmes to just 2% of the people who watch them. Mobile data isn’t a great way to replace TV – even if the networks wanted to do that with the space.

Ofcom did a consultation earlier this year about people’s views on the importance of mobile broadband vs TV, which I wrote about here. Time’s up for responding to that one, but the graphs in the article are still worth checking out, and the EBU report I mentioned above strongly suggests that the band should be kept for TV only.

As things stand, it looks like all the people who matter are on the side of keeping the airwaves exclusively for broadcast television, at least in Europe, and hopefully that’s the way it will stay, together with a commitment to keep things that way for quite a few years. But, WRC-15 lasts most of the month, so almost anything could happen.

Watch this space.

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