Digital Dividend: Reding proposes “fair play” “50:50” split between broadcasters and new users

In a speech to the ComReg conference in Dublin on 1 October 2008, EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, Viviane Reding, makes a strong case for the use of the ‘digital dividend’ – the spectrum that will be freed up by the transition to digital broadcasting, and by technological developments – to deliver wireless broadband services. There are considerable economic, social and cultural advantages of making this spectrum available for wireless broadband. As Commissioner Reding observes:

these UHF bandwidths are in the most valuable range, with very high propagation characteristics which, simply put means that the costs of rolling out new networks will be lower, the reception quality will be very, very good and we can use fewer and lower power transmitters, which is better for energy saving, lowering electro magnetic radiation and reducing unsightly radio masts.

The gains are not just in the economy. There are also many applications that will be crucial for public services. I give you an example: public safety services (such as fire or ambulance or flood prevention) are very often using fragmented bandwidths and old analogue technologies. They rarely have the bandwidth they need to set up mobile broadband services for teams facing natural disasters or terrorist threats. The communication systems are often poorly integrated between agencies especially cross-border and remember: natural disasters do not necessarily respect human made boundaries. The digital dividend provides an opportunity to build these crucial first response teams with a state-of-the-art infrastructure to meet our needs in times of crisis. Can we afford to pass up this chance?

Let me give you another example – highly relevant to Ireland. I have read with interest the Irish government’s new consultation paper on high speed broadband published yesterday. First, Ireland is well placed to benefit from the digital dividend because, as an island it faces fewer problems of interference. So there is an opportunity. And there is also a need. The report points out because Ireland has so many remote and rural communities the copper local loops on the fixed telecoms networks are longer than normal; 2.7 km on average) and in some cases up to 9km. This means that many subscribers cannot be reached by high speed internet, at least not at an economic cost. This is where wireless broadband steps in and where the digital dividend can make the difference.

This last point is of course highly relevant to Australia too. Using the UHF spectrum for wireless broadband could provide very fast services over very long distances, a great advantage for regional, rural and remote Australians. This would require some compromise with the broadcasters, and Reding is careful to acknowledge the important role they play.

But she concludes:

I have two suggestions to make:

First, let us jointly choose a political figure for the distribution of the digital dividend. I propose a “fair play” 50:50 rule. That is half the dividend for the broadcasters and half the dividend for the new users. A bold step like this will show the world that we mean business. This is the only way we will cut the knot and make real progress.

Second, let’s move ahead together. On spectrum, together Europe is strong, divided it will fail to reap the rewards of the digital dividend.

This echoes the current push in the US by the Wireless Innovation Alliance, a lobby group led by Google and Microsoft which also includes equipment manufacturers Dell, HP and Motorola, to use the “white spaces” or spectrum not used for broadcasting (the digital dividend) for wireless broadband services.  See the Alliance’s Resources page for more information from their perspective.

The Federal Communications Commission has been conducting field tests which apparently do not support the concerns voiced by broadcasters and wireless microphone manufacturers that the use of the white spaces in this way would interfere with their signals.The broadcasters position is outlined in this article from Broadcasting and Cable.

Yesterday Bill Gates called on the FCC to approve the white spaces plan at their meeting on November 4.

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