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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
As we go to press, we await the outcome of two significant deliberations: first, the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-07), meeting in Geneva and due to conclude on 16 November; and second, the review of the EU’s e-Communications Regulatory Framework which is expected to result in a package of Communications and Directives on 13 November. Both are the culmination of years of work, studies, consultations and no doubt whatever passes for the twenty-first century’s equivalent of smoke-filled rooms.
WRC-07 is considering some 30 items related to almost all terrestrial and space radio services and applications. An early reported success was the agreement to include WiMAX in IMT-2000 (with IMT-Advanced and IMT-2000 to be combined into a single category to be called IMT), a significant step towards technology neutrality. But the most contentious item on the agenda was the identification of new frequencies for mobile services and there seems little prospect of success on this.
In essence identifying appropriate frequencies for wireless communications – and ideally in the UHF band because of its advantageous propagation characteristics – requires willingness on the part of broadcasters to change, be flexible and to relinquish some of the bandwidth that they currently control. Highly relevant of course to this debate is the opportunity offered by the so-called digital dividend, i.e. the radio spectrum released by the switch to digital television. The technology is now emerging that could enable dramatically cheaper and rapid communication and that could really bring information society services to all. Moreover, the economic impact of using these frequencies for wireless communications is considerable when compared to their use for broadcasting (Forge et al., 2007).
Nevertheless, the opportunity may be lost or delayed. The most likely outcome at WRC-07 is that these decisions will be postponed for another four years until WRC-11, mainly to ensure that more television, whether higher definition or not, can be broadcast. Broadcasters feel under threat but the issue is not about whether citizens (or customers) should or should not watch TV but rather it is simply about the distribution mechanism. Clearly there are a growing number of channels through which video content can be distributed –, e.g. IPTV, downloads from the Internet, fixed or mobile wireless broadband. Moreover, it is also clear that the ways in which people want to consume television is changing. It seems pretty obvious that a one-to-many broadcast model is harking back to the twentieth century rather than looking to the future.
Despite this, television producers seem to fear the consequences, which perhaps will result in the loss of control and influence that they currently exercise as a more chaotic and less paternalistic future emerges. Many governments, too, will be worried by that kind of future and the lessening of their ability to influence the airwaves and their citizens.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, there are signs that the European Commission realises the need to press forward with the information society project and that the opportunity must be grabbed. A European regulatory authority was part of the plans leaked in the summer of 2007, although initial reaction to this has been quite negative. Whether a broad regulatory authority is feasible or whether an agency limited to matters of radio spectrum might be more realistic remains to be seen. Leaving this aside, the European Commission has been signalling that is acutely aware of the opportunity afforded by the digital dividend and of the need to seize it. Of course, achieving consensus among European Member States, let alone all the members of the ITU, will be difficult task but I believe it is possible to accommodate all stakeholders if there is willingness to compromise.
Colin Blackman is the Editor of info, and an Independent Consultant. He may be contacted at 13 High Street, Cottenham, Cambridge CB4 8SA, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org
Forge, S., Blackman, C. and Bohlin, E. (2007), The Mobile Provide: Economic Impacts of Alternative Uses of the Digital Dividend, SCF Assoicates, Princess Risborough, available at: www.digitaldividend.eu
About the author
Colin Blackman is the Editor of info, and an independent consultant. He may be contacted at: email@example.com