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WRC-23: How will its deliberations & decisions influence the future of linear TV

By Dr Amal Punchihewa

Data enables us to make more rational decisions. Do we have intelligence in our Asia-Pacific region (APAC) or Asia and the Pacific (ASP) on how audiences access and consume content in general? Certain converged regulators in some countries in APAC are carrying out regular surveys to understand the broadcast and media markets. However, to enable greater harmonisation and to facilitate fair, equitable and prudent use of the UHF spectrum requires the understanding and appreciation of broadcast services as a collective.

Over-the-air and terrestrial broadcasting services are critical for APAC which has low broadband connectivity and penetration. The value of such data and knowledge is important to sustain universality in broadcasting as we are heading to the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23), in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, starting on November 20. The final decisions will be announced at the conclusion of the conference on December 15.

This year’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) WRC-23 outcomes for the UHF band are of critical importance to the broadcast sector. 

World Radiocommunication Conferences 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 takes into account recommendations made by previous world radiocommunication conferences.

APAC belongs to Region 3 of the ITU classification. This year’s meeting will discuss the UHF spectrum under agenda item 1.5 relevant only to Region 1.

WRC15 adopted resolution 235 (WRC-15) to review the spectrum use of the frequency band 470-960 MHz in Region 1. As APAC is in Region 3 represented by the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT), we must bear in mind that the UHF band is already co-primary allocated for both mobile and broadcasting services. 

In general, agenda item 1.5 needs to seek the long-term balance between both national requirements, in particular due to the evolution of spectrum usage and demands, and the challenges of effective cross-border coordination between the existing services and various services/applications wishing to access spectrum, including applications of the mobile service. In line with Resolution 235 (WRC-15), for Region 1, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) acknowledges and supports that no regulatory action is required in the band 694-960 MHz.

Some regions may support a secondary allocation to the mobile service (except aeronautical mobile) in the frequency band 470 – 694 MHz to be made at WRC-23, with a future agenda item for WRC-31 to consider a possible upgrade to a primary allocation. Regional administrative organisations such as CEPT are of the view that sharing studies indicate that due care will be required in any introduction of new applications of the mobile service in the UHF band. 

CEPT is also of the view that the primary allocation of the 470-862 MHz band to the broadcasting service in Region 1 shall remain, to enable the protection and development of incumbent usage of the broadcasting service.

Though Region 3 has co-primary allocated the UHF band for mobile and broadcasting, some broadcasting services remain for the foreseeable future as no country will just switch off any terrestrial TV (either analogue or digital or both) broadcast services without an accessible alternative TV service for all citizens.

The existence of broadcasting and media in any form requires the continuation and development of the incumbent usage by services ancillary to broadcasting (SAB) and systems applications products (SAP), also commonly known as Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE) under existing Radio Regulation No. 5.296.

For co-primary to operate, two services need to co-exist practically and efficiently. The studies for co-existence were carried out following WRC15 and its decisions, especially in Region 1 about future plans. Some of these outcomes were shared during the ITU seminar on the Future of Television for Asia & Pacific held in March 2021. Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) made contributions to the seminar by advocating and voicing the value of free-to-access (FTA) terrestrial TV broadcasting, highlighting services rendered during COVID-19 that delivered information, education and entertainment to all.  

A significant majority of Region 1 administrations (countries) have said they require the full 470–694 MHz band for broadcasting in the future, allowing current sharing arrangements with radio astronomy and with PMSE to continue.  Therefore, additional mobile applications in this band would need to co-exist with incumbent services.

However, co-existence requires a large geographical separation between broadcasting and mobile stations. This is restrictive and inefficient for service deployments and operations as separation distance can be up to several hundreds of kilometres. Separation distances could be reduced only if the protection of one or both services were to be substantially lowered, which might be possible in some situations but is not generally applicable. 

This issue, identified in ITU radiocommunication studies, was confirmed by real interference cases reported when the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands were re-purposed from broadcasting to IMT in APAC too.

What do we know about APAC-specific spectrum requirements for broadcasting as a collective?

Based on ITU–R studies, some countries hold different views regarding the future use of the UHF band. Some foresee a decreasing need for terrestrial broadcasting and wish to give more spectrum to the mobile service, while others consider existing mobile allocations in the UHF band to be sufficient. In APAC, many countries operate analogue terrestrial broadcasting services in the UHF band and may continue for some more time as they would not be able to just switch off those services. 

Darko Ratkaj, Senior Project Manager, European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and former chair of a working group of ITU-R Task Group 6/1, communicated through an ITU article published recently that numerous administrations support investments in digital terrestrial television and SAB/SAP applications. In many European countries, current regulations below 694 MHz give priority to broadcasting and SAB/SAP until at least 2030. Therefore, any change would only be possible after that date.

A study commissioned by Free TV Australia sometime back highlighted the economic contributions TV makes through jobs, productions, advertising and related activities. If there is no UHF spectrum, there will be no terrestrial TV, the most energy-efficient platform that currently serves many households and shares many infrastructures with radio … and no or less live events and much less content creation and associated jobs.

In conclusion, digital terrestrial broadcasting provides the most affordable and equitable form of media distribution. While spectrum is a scarce natural resource, in many parts of the world, there will still be ample spectrum for all uses, without changing the allocation of the band 470-694 MHz. There are strong arguments in favour of preserving spectrum for broadcasting with no further changes or spectrum allocation concerning the sub 700 MHz UHF band at WRC-23, thus securing the great benefits of both broadcasting and mobile for citizens and society.

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