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The Digital Dividend Reveiw – a comment

CHURCHES SHOULDN’T PANIC ABOUT RADIO MICROPHONES, BUT BE CONCERNED ABOUT THE HANDOVER OF A SIGNIFICANT PUBLIC ASSET TO THE MARKETPLACE.

The digital switchover is going to change the way that TV is broadcast and, eventually, radio too. The aim is to enable all around the UK to benefit from digital technology. Rev. Tony Miles, Media Chaplain based at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, and presenter for Premier Christian Radio said, “Technological advances are rapidly changing the world and even those in the radio industry can’t predict where we will be in ten years time. The digital switchover is going to be as momentous as the change from black and white to colour TV, or even as radical as a change of currency.” Ofcom estimates that in the UK the uses of spectrum like mobile communications and broadcasting account for about 3% of the economy – more than the electricity and water industries combined. Mr Miles said, “There are serious issues relating to switchover that need to be addressed to ensure that best interests of society are protected.”

The Digital Dividend Review (DDR) is Ofcom’s public consultation about the use of radio spectrum that will be freed up by the Digital Switchover. There have been concerns recently that this will disadvantage churches and community groups when the switchover takes place from analogue frequencies to digital.

Ofcom tell us that the UK’s analogue television signals will be switched off, region by region, between 2008 and 2012. There is no date set for a switchover to digital radio. In principle, this means that all 368MHz might be available for new uses, but it was previously decided that 256MHz and 368Mhz should be used for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) from digital switchover. This digital broadcasting will be provided for by six multiplexes, each of which will carry a number of television channels and some other services. This decision will allow digital terrestrial television to expand its coverage. At the same time, digital switchover will allow the remaining spectrum – 112Mhz – to be released for new uses. It is this 112Mhz that forms the core of the ‘digital dividend’. There are actually three types of spectrum in total that will released and covered by the DDR: 112Mhz (I’ve just mentioned); two other blocks of spectrum known as channel 36 (principally airport radar) and 69 (principally wireless microphones); and ‘interleaved spectrum’ which is the capacity within spectrum to carry the six DDT multiplexes.

Public Voice has been commissioned to assist with the civil society element of this review. They say, “What’s at stake for civil society is a possible land grab for valuable broadcasting territory, pitting the corporate might of the telecoms and TV industries against the smaller, sometimes disparate voices calling for the pursuit of new forms of public service communications to extend access to quality, tailored content for communities.” As such, Public Voice is urging “… representatives from the voluntary and community sector to add their voices to the consultation responses that are already flooding in from corporate and civil society stakeholders alike.”

Mr Miles, a member of the Churches Media Council, said, “There has been some scare-mongering over the way that digital switchover will affect the use of radio microphones in churches. This is not the case and there is no need to panic. Ofcom have assured me that there will be sufficient affordable space on the Channel 69 radio frequency spectrum for churches and other similar organisations to use and we won’t need to buy new equipment. However, the same won’t be the case for professional users. See page 77 of Ofcom’s DDR main document.”

“In future channel 69 should continue to be available for use by wireless microphones and similar equipment. However, we believe that it should be appropriate to remove the requirement for licensing, as community users typically do not require their use of the band to be co-ordinated with other users. Indications that there is a significant level of unlicensed use in this channel also imply that coordination is typically not required. We therefore believe that it is appropriate to consider licence-exemption of channel 69, for use by PMSE services.

Licence-exemption would mean that users of the channel would no longer need to acquire, or pay for, licences. Ofcom would put in place guidelines which would state the technical parameters of equipment that could operate in the channel. Removing the need for licensing is aligned with Ofcom’s objective of light-touch regulation, and should result in fewer administrative time and cost requirements of users of the channel.”

Mr Miles said, “As I understand it, there are more serious issues to address. Whilst Ofcom won’t allow churches, schools and other similar organisations to be disadvantaged, we mustn’t bury our heads in the ground about ‘things digital’. I am very concerned about Ofcom’s market-led approach and the extent of the deregulation. We need to speak up to ensure there are social benefits and not just commercial advantages. Someone rightly said, ‘We wouldn’t sell off public land without ensuring there was adequate provision for public recreation and that the environment was being protected.’ Who will be looking after the interests of society and how is healthy citizenship going to be provided for in Ofcom’s proposals? I encourage Christians to take an active interest in issues relating to the DDR and let Ofcom know of any views or concerns about their commercial approach to digital switchover – views must be expressed by the end of March this year.”

Mr Miles said, “Unusually Ofcom has commissioned an outside body called ‘Public Voice’ to conduct the consultation for them.” Their website is http://www.public-voice.org.uk/ and their project manager, Rebecca Fulton, said: “Ofcom recognise this as one of the most important decisions they have ever had to take, and it’s vital that voluntary and civil society groups’ opinions are properly represented.” Churches and other voluntary and community groups should take an interest in the potential uses of spectrum and visit the Public Voice’s information online.

Mr Miles said, “Whilst I welcome digital advances and the tremendous opportunities they open up to us, Christians need to be sure that these developments will benefit everyone and not be allowed to cause a digital divide in society – between those who can afford to embrace the technology, and those who are not so privileged. Moreover, spectrum is a public asset and we need to ensure that there is some regulation to protect society and ensure that there is a balance of values. I am not convinced the marketplace will protect society and the interests of community groups.”

If you would like to respond to Ofcom about issues relating to the Dividend Review, please email paula.guest@ofcom.org.uk attaching your response in Microsoft Word format, or you can write to Paul Guest at Riverside House, 2A Southwark Bridge Road, London. SE1 9HA.

All responses should be accompanied with a consultation coversheet – available online: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/ddr/

Tony Miles – Media Chaplain
6th February 2007

Tony is a Methodist Minister, broadcaster and author. He is a radio presenter with Premier Christian Radio and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 2's Pause for Thought (5.45am and 9.20am). Tony is married with two children.

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