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Doc’s IN: Will the broadcast industry be able to afford fully releasing 470 – 694 MHz frequency in Region 1?

By Dr Amal Punchihewa

With this year’s World Radio Conference (WRC) of the International Telecommunication Union to be held in Dubai in November 2023, let us focus on providing critical analysis on the effective and efficient use of radio-frequency spectrum, an economic resource that is scarce and integral to the future of the broadcast and media industry.

Since my last study for the ITU in 2018, I do not have any comprehensive updates on the analogue switch-off (ASO) of television services in the Asia-Pacific Region (APAC) as some countries have not updated the ITU tracking tool. 

However, the question remains: Are we ready to switch-off both analogue and digital terrestrial television broadcasting services?

Except for a small number of countries that may have completely switched-off digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasting services out of 193 ITU member countries, the rest of the countries around the world are continuing either in one form or both. Both analogue and DTT services are delivered over the air (OTA), where modulated and high-power radio frequency carriers transport content to a wider audience with high spectral and power efficiency.

Over the last two decades, online delivery of content complemented instead of replaced OTA television service delivery. Today, the majority of the audience in many countries continue to access content via terrestrial television and radio services.

In APAC, the radio frequencies used to broadcast terrestrial television have been allocated for both television and mobile services as primary services. This means that both mobile and broadcasting services have an equal claim for frequencies in the Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) band 470-694 MHz. Thus, we need to have a better understanding of the process of allocation of frequencies, discussions, and agreements through ITU and other regional bodies such as Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT).

WRCs are held every three to four years to review, and, if necessary, revise the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the geostationary-satellite and non-geostationary-satellite orbits. Revisions are made based on an agenda determined by the ITU Council, which considers recommendations made by previous WRCs. 

The general scope of the agenda of the WRCs is established four to six years in advance, with the final agenda set by the ITU Council two years before the conference, with the concurrence of a majority of Member States (currently 193).

Under the terms of the ITU Constitution, a WRC can:

  • Revise the Radio Regulations (RR) and any associated frequency assignment and allotment plans; 
  • Address any radiocommunication matter of worldwide character;
  • Instruct the Radio Regulations Board and the Radiocommunication Bureau and review their activities; and
  • Determine Questions for study by the Radiocommunication Assembly (RA) and its Study Groups (SG) in preparation for future WRCs.

For WRC23, there is only one agenda item in the conference relevant to the UHF band of terrestrial broadcasting. According to the APT, it is keeping an eye on that agenda item as it may have an impact on the APAC region. One of the important principles that underpin the allocation of frequencies is to achieve economies of scale by harmonising across all countries, preferably globally but at least regionally. 

One of the best examples of this is the usage of VHF and UHF frequency bands for radio and television broadcasting (both analogue and digital) for close to a century. Most countries are now left with only the occupied UHF and/or VHF frequency bands for television broadcasting. 

In New Zealand, for example, a nationwide DTT network is deployed using UHF band 502 – 622 MHz. In 2022, the Asia-Pacific Spectrum Management Conference revealed that the reserved allocation of 622 – 700 MHz for broadcasting has been de-allocated. Even for a country where fibre-to-home reach exceeds 60% and unlimited broadband access is available at an affordable price, DTT should still not be switched off in New Zealand as this creates a potential barrier to universal access to information, which is in violation of the UN Charter.

It should also be noted that countries in APAC are highly diverse in many facets such as technology, economy, politics, population, culture, and geography, in addition to having the least access to any form of broadband globally, according to ITU reports.

What then, are some of the views of individual countries and regional bodies such as APT, when it comes to spectrum allocation?

As mentioned earlier, the agenda Item 1.5 of WRC23 is to review the spectrum use and spectrum needs of existing services in the frequency band 470 – 960 MHz in Region 1 and consider possible regulatory actions in the frequency band 470 – 694 MHz in Region 1 based on the review following Resolution 235 (WRC 15). 

The Samoan Administration does not support any changes to the regulatory conditions for using the 470 – 694 MHz frequency band in Region 1 under this WRC-23 agenda item as many existing services in the Samoan Islands utilise this frequency band, and when considering the future intensive use of this frequency band by many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and developing countries.

Iran supports No Change (which means allocate only for broadcasting) by considering that the frequency band 470 – 694 MHz has been extensively used for broadcasting services in many countries in Region 1. Iran also expresses the view that compatibility studies show the two services (broadcasting and mobile) cannot share the band in the same geographic area and a very large separation distance is required.

Both the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) and the Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications (RCC) oppose changing the regulatory conditions of using the frequency band 470-694 MHz in Region 1 within this WRC-23 agenda item due to the current and future intensive use of this band by incumbent services. 

There is ongoing work towards an APT600 band plan that considers the 600MHz frequency band for mobile services. In APAC, this has been discussed by APT and 3GPP, a mobile standardisation organisation, is expected to finalise the APT600 New Radio band specifications in March 2023. 

There are benefits such as economies of scale for countries when there is global harmonisation when considering the identification of frequency bands for mobile services in many countries, including Region 3 countries. However, there has been no decision yet to consider mobile services in the frequency band 470 -s 694 MHz in the whole of Region 3 during the latest APT preparatory Group (PAG) meeting.

The UHF spectrum band 470 – 678 MHz has been used either fully or partly for broadcasting services in APAC. Taking into consideration the above information and analysis, and given the technological and economical challenges of APAC and beyond, we need to ask ourselves this important question: Can terrestrial broadcasting services be replaced by alternative delivery mechanisms while maintaining availability, affordability, and universal access to essential information? 

Next month, we will address the challenges that countries may encounter in ensuring access to reliable information for all citizens without a gatekeeper from multiple sources. 

Dr Amal Punchihewa is an ITU expert and advisor/consultant to the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), and was formerly Director of Technology and Innovation at the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU)

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