Spectrum - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

5 Other spectrum users

Public sector spectrum

92.  The public sector is a major holder of spectrum. Almost 50 per cent of all spectrum below 15 GHz is currently held by the public sector and primarily used for the defence, aeronautical and maritime sectors and emergency services. The composition of public-sector spectrum is shown in the table below:

% of public sector

spectrum held
75 %
Civil Aeronautical
12 %
Emergency Services
5 %
4 %
2 %
Satellite navigation/GPS
2 %

Source: DCMS

93.  In March 2011, DCMS issued a consultation called Enabling UK growth - releasing public spectrum.[111] In the consultation document DCMS acknowledged that increasing demand from commercial users meant that there was a strong case for releasing some of the public sector spectrum holdings. It observed that:

Given that spectrum bands are already heavily used, and that spectrum does not respect international borders, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed when deciding which bands to release, how and when.

[...]Many public sector bands are already shared among a number of public and private sector users which adds to the complexity in freeing them for other uses.

The international nature of spectrum both provides benefits and raises issues. Much of the value from spectrum use can be increased if a band is allocated for the same purpose internationally. For example increased equipment volumes reduce costs and equipment can be used abroad. However issues can arise if the international agreements that bind the way that spectrum can be used need to change, as securing changes can take many years.[112]

The MoD has already identified two bands from which it expects to release spectrum and DCMS has identified more bands which it is investigating as potential releases.

94.  Witnesses said that there was "a good case for releasing some of the under-utilised spectrum" held by the MoD and other public bodies.[113] Stephen Hearnden, Director of Telecommunications and Technology at Intellect UK, the trade association for the UK technology industry, said that the biggest benefit in releasing the public-sector spectrum was that it could be internationally harmonised allowing users to "roam" across international boundaries, and therefore had more value to other spectrum users. He did, however, express some concerns about how the proposed release of public spectrum would be managed. He said that Ofcom was "quite a long way divorced" from the process of public sector spectrum release, even though it has a lot of experience in that field, whereas the Government does not.[114]

95.  Another issue that was brought to our attention regarding public sector spectrum use, was that public sector bodies, such as the emergency services, are not in a position to bid for spectrum and compete with private sector organisations in the marketplace. Stephen Hearnden told us:

the emergency services are in need of additional spectrum for the future growth of the emergency services, the blue light network. They are not in an easy position to bid for spectrum on a pure auction basis. Similarly, other public sector needs are not adequately covered because under economic value they have to pay the full market rate and there needs, I think, to be a recognition. [115]

96.  Simon Towler of DCMS told us that the Department was aware of this issue, and that it formed part of the focus of the communications review.[116]

97.  We welcome DCMS's consultation on the release of public sector spectrum. We urge DCMS to work closely with Ofcom and with the relevant international bodies to ensure that the spectrum that is released is internationally harmonised.

98.  We are concerned that, because the emergency services are not in a position to bid for spectrum at auction, they could be overlooked in spectrum policy. It is vital that Ofcom and DCMS take into full account the spectrum needs of the emergency services in their spectrum policies.

Programme-Making and Special Events and interference

99.  The 800 MHz spectrum that is due to be auctioned has previously been primarily used for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and the Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE) sector. PMSE spectrum use includes radio-microphones, wireless cameras and wireless communication headsets. These are used in concerts, theatre, television production, outside broadcasts and sporting events. PMSE use of spectrum has grown considerably in the last 20 years due to live shows and events becoming bigger and more technologically sophisticated. PMSE is the main sector using interleaved spectrum which comprises the "white spaces", or "spare channels". The term white space (or interleaved) spectrum describes a range of frequencies that are not in use by the licensee all of the time at all locations. A white space device can make use of those frequencies provided that interference is not caused to the licensed users of the spectrum. White space devices include items such as car key fobs, baby monitors and Wi-Fi adaptors for laptop computers.

100.  Ofcom states that the 800 MHz band will be cleared of PMSE services by the end of 2012, and of DTT (as part of the digital switchover) in 2013-14.[117] PMSE users are therefore being moved from their current spectrum band, known as channel 69, to an alternative band, channel 38.


101.  The London 2012 Olympic Games (the Games) are perhaps the largest special event ever to take place in the UK. The Games will place a heavy demand on spectrum which will be used for many devices including wireless communications, cameras and broadcast equipment. We understand that Ofcom has, effectively, borrowed some public sector spectrum in order to ensure that the Games organisers have access to enough spectrum that is free from interference. Ofcom's ability to procure public sector spectrum is vital for the success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and might also provide a model of spectrum lending that could be used for other special events. We recommend that DCMS and Ofcom look into whether this could be done for other special events.


102.  The British Entertainment Industry Radio Group (BEIRG) wrote in its submission that, following the allocation of the 800 MHz spectrum to mobile operators at the auction, the users of neighbouring spectrum may be affected:

BEIRG believes any future users of the 800 MHz spectrum must be prevented from interfering with existing licensed users in the adjacent bands. Ofcom must make every effort to ensure that new use of the 800 MHz band is as clean as possible, as soon as possible. Given the disruption already faced by the PMSE sector, any further disruption would be unacceptable and unsustainable.[118]

Similarly, DTT broadcasters sent us a joint submission arguing that, after the 800 MHz auction, 4G services will be rolled out which is "likely to create significant interference for DTT viewers".[119]

103.  The Musicians' Union, in its written submission, told us that if the move from channel 69 to 38 was looked at in isolation from the wider context, "it would be reasonable to conclude that channel 38 is an adequate replacement".[120] However, it goes on to state that, in the context of digital switchover, it is "impossible to determine whether PMSE spectrum allocation is demonstrably interference-free and sufficient in terms of quality, bandwidth and continuity".[121]

104.  In June 2011, Ofcom launched a consultation entitled Co-existence of new services in the 800 MHz band with digital terrestrial television, which closed in August 2011. The consultation contains a number of proposals which Ofcom has designed to try and mitigate interference after digital switchover and the roll-out of 4G mobile services. Ofcom has also committed to publishing the results of further research into potential interference in the autumn of 2011.[122]

105.  Ed Richards told us that concerns about interference on DTT were the reason why Ofcom was putting its proposals to consultation. He said:

We think that a significant number of households could be affected— possibly as high as 750,000—but the vast bulk of those should be able to have the issue addressed through a simple filter. Once one has taken account of the effects and the benefits of that filter, we think the number is very much lower—more like 0.1%—and for those households we may have to look at specific measures.[123]

106.  The Ofcom consultation and technical research demonstrates that, as Stephen Hearnden of Intellect UK put it, Ofcom was "on top of" the issue of cross-spectrum interference, and that the industry "is working with the regulator to try and resolve it".[124] He also said that "the methods that have been suggested and adopted by Ofcom for moving them from channel 69, as we call it, down to channel 38 I think has been a fair and reasonable compromise".[125]

107.  There is evidence that the proliferation of unlicensed white space devices using WiFi and Bluetooth technologies pose a potential threat of interference for PMSE users. BEIRG wrote in its submission:

The PMSE sector is extremely concerned that there are moves to introduce these [white space] devices into the spectrum currently used by licensed PMSE users, before any "real life" testing has taken place and before Ofcom is in a position to guarantee that existing licensed users will not be negatively affected.

White space devices are an unproven technology. If they are permitted into the UK market in line with current proposals they will, in all likelihood, cause interference to licensed PMSE applications and consequently undermine the UK's ability to produce quality content because they will render radio microphones, in-ear monitor systems and talkback effectively unusable. This will devastate the live music, theatre and film and TV production industries, amongst others.[126]

108.  We put these concerns to Ed Vaizey, who told us about the measures the Government was taking on this issue, including a compensation regime and a trial in Cambridge looking at white space devices and interference. He told us that he "would like to think that we reflect on their concerns and we act on their concerns".[127] Ed Vaizey went on to say that the issue of white space device interference is not specific to channel 38, and that in that respect "channel 38 would be no different from channel 69".[128]

109.  We welcome the Government's compensation regime for the relocation of PMSE spectrum use from channel 69 to channel 38, and the trial in Cambridge looking at interference by white space devices. However, these measures do not address the real problem of new spectrum users in the 800 MHz band causing disruptive interference to the PMSE sector. We recommend that Ofcom includes in the new 800 MHz licence conditions a provision that any significant interference to adjacent users be considered grounds for that licence to be revoked.

Satellite spectrum use

110.  Inmarsat provides satellite services for military and Government, as well as maritime users and disaster relief missions and, in its written submission, stressed that the alternative uses for spectrum, ie. other than by the MNOs, should not be overlooked when it comes to the spectrum auction:

The focus of this inquiry on mobile broadband should not obscure that many other services rely on spectrum in the same portion of the radio frequency spectrum that mobile terrestrial operators seek. Among the recommendations of the UK Space Innovation and Growth strategy (IGS) [...] is that the Government should take full account of the wider value of Space-enabled services when engaged in activities relating to radio frequency spectrum allocation. The spectrum most in demand below 3 GHz has been a prime focus for mobile terrestrial operators, but it also is used by many other users and regulated safety services. A sophisticated approach to "co-habitation" amongst the different services is required to maximise welfare for all users.[129]

Rupert Pearce of Inmarsat explained to us that satellites were very expensive and sophisticated objects, weighing six tonnes and requiring a $120 million rocket to launch them into space. He went on to say that, once in orbit, "you can't send a man up with a screwdriver" to recalibrate a satellite, and that therefore any changes to international spectrum allocations or policy must take account of this.[130]

111.  We asked both Inmarsat and Intellect UK whether they were satisfied that European spectrum regulators were sufficiently taking into account the needs of niche services such as satellites, and both said that no, they were not.[131] Stephen Hearnden said that Ofcom seemed "to be reducing their commitment to the European programmes [...] It is a source of concern that certain bands seem to be ceded to the broadband community and there are activities like, for example, [satellite] services [...] that could suffer as a result of some of the changes in legislation that come out of the EU".[132] This is a point that Chris McLaughlin, Vice President of External Affairs at Inmarsat, took further when giving evidence to us: Ofcom had "always seen themselves as the guardians of the consumer in the UK and nowhere else. They have struggled, shall we say, to think about how they could also be the guardians of leading British industry that operates with spectrum".[133] Rupert Pearce went on to say that:

We do feel that Ofcom is split between wanting to be the regulators' regulator, proselytising new ways of regulating outside the UK to its comrades there, as against wrapping itself in the Union Jack and supporting British business out there in the rest of the world. Domestically, we feel uncomfortable with the economics-driven approach to spectrum policy, which I think if that is the only approach and it is not leavened by public policy objectives as well and recognising there are other businesses that can't compete for spectrum on the same basis as, say, a Vodafone or an O2, then over time businesses like ours will struggle to compete in the UK.[134]

112.  Ofcom's remit is set out in the 2003 Communications Act which states that "Ofcom's principal duty when exercising its functions is to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters and to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets, where appropriate by promoting competition". [135] We considered whether there was a case for widening Ofcom's remit to take full account of the interests of British businesses. Ed Vaizey said that he thought there was.[136] Ed Richards also said that "there is bound to be a case" for widening Ofcom's remit, but said that Ofcom did not currently ignore business interests, asserting that "it certainly is not the case that we do not take account of business needs. Whether our duties need to be adjusted to guide us to take more account of business as a voice or of particular businesses, will ultimately be a matter for Parliament".[137]

113.  Given the growth, and consumer benefits, of mobile broadband provision, it is understandable that this has been the focus of recent spectrum policy. However, spectrum use by other sectors is also crucial to many industries and services including the emergency services, maritime services, and special events including the London 2012 Olympics. Some spectrum users are not in a position to bid competitively for spectrum and therefore it is even more important that their needs are not overlooked.

114.  We are sympathetic to the concerns we have heard from the Programme-Making and Special Events sector. However, we think that Ofcom and DCMS are taking their concerns seriously and we welcome the trial in Cambridge that is looking at white space devices.

115.  Given that spectrum is a finite resource, it is inevitable that some interference and inconvenience may occur for users as certain sectors expand faster than others. We are concerned about potential interference on digital terrestrial television caused by 4G mobile services, but we are satisfied that Ofcom is taking appropriate measures to mitigate this.

116.  Spectrum is a valuable resource that many industries depend on. Ofcom has a very difficult role to play in balancing the interests of consumers, businesses and the public purse. On the whole, we believe that Ofcom is striking the right balance with regards to spectrum policy and management. However, we recommend that the Government widens Ofcom's remit to ensure that it will safeguard the interests of British business abroad as well as the interests of consumers and citizens, a measure that would not require legislation.

111   With: BIS, DCLG, MoD, Dept for Transport, Home Office, Dept of Health and HM Treasury Back

112   Enabling UK growth:releasing public spectrum, DCMS et al Back

113   Q228 Back

114   Q228 Back

115   Q227 Back

116   Q244 Back

117   Ofcom Digital dividend: clearing the 800MHz band, June 2009 Back

118   Ev 85 Back

119   Ev 110 Back

120   Ev 54 Back

121   Ev 54 Back

122   Ofcom Co-existence of new services in the 800MHz band with digital terrestrial television, June 2011 Back

123   Q301 Back

124   Q223 Back

125   Q226 Back

126   Ev 84 Back

127   Q278 Back

128   Q279 Back

129   Ev 67 Back

130   Q208 Back

131   Q217 Back

132   Q217 Back

133   Q227 Back

134   Q227 Back

135   Communications Act 2003, section 3(1) Back

136   Q277 Back

137   Q304 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 3 November 2011