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Update: Ofcom allocates 700MHz guard band for PMSE, but still no word on compensation

The ongoing saga of spectrum allocation took a new turn at the end of last year, when regulator Ofcom secured part of the 700MHz band for wireless microphone use in the UK.

The UK broadcast and spectrum regulator Ofcom has announced that it will guarantee continued use of frequencies from 694 to 703MHz for wireless microphone and in-ear monitoring (IEM) applications. The programme making and special events (PMSE) sector will still be able to use this 7MHz range after May 1, 2020, when the 700MHz band has been cleared and made available for new mobile broadband services and technologies.

The clearance of 700MHz will further restrict what frequencies that can be used for PMSE, reducing the amount of spectrum that can be used for wireless mics by 96MHz. Ofcom has proposed allowing spectrum in the Air Band, covering 960-1164MHz, to be used for broadcast and live event production. This is currently solely used for DME (distance measuring equipment) transponders on commercial aircraft in UK airspace, although Ofcom is confident there is will be no problems with interference.

Moving to the Air Band will necessitate the development of new wireless microphone systems. PMSE users are still waiting for details of what compensation they might receive for having to replace their current equipment when they move from 700MHz. The confirmation that 694 to 703MHz, which is a guard band, can be used will secure valuable capacity for wireless mic operations and might allow existing systems to still be used.

In its announcement, Ofcom said that the 700MHz guard band will separate frequencies used for digital terrestrial television (DTT) from mobile broadband operators and users. It will also allow those in PMSE to carry on using the band. “Ofcom is committed to supporting the PMSE community and believes there are benefits in allowing PMSE users to have continued access to the guard band,” the regulator said in a statement. “We believe that continued use by PMSE services is likely to secure the optimal use of this spectrum and maximise the benefits to UK citizens and consumers.”

The PMSE Implementation Group of the Digital Television Group (DTG) said it welcomed Ofcom’s decision, saying it would potentially provide more capacity for events and live production. There was also the chance that users could carry on using wireless mics tuned to these frequencies and not be forced to spend money on new equipment for other bands.

Despite this positive reaction, the DTG PMSE Implementation Group did raise some concerns over the decision: “As 694-703MHz forms a guard band to protect DTT from interference from new mobile services and vice versa, the quality of the spectrum for PMSE applications may be poor due to the potential for LTE [long term evolution or 4G] handsets using nearby frequencies. In addition, it will not be possible to assess the quality of the spectrum prior to an event or production as it will only become an issue when LTE handsets are in the proximity. As such, factoring the spectrum into PMSE planning may not be possible.”

BEIRG (British Entertainment Radio Industry Group) has been a vocal critic of Ofcom’s approach to clearing both the 800MHz and 700MHz bands in favour of mobile broadband and other new technologies. It has also lobbied to ensure that the requirements of PMSE, which is part of the larger broadcast and live sound production sectors, continue to be recognised and catered for. In this instance the organisation is reserving comment until the announcement of compensation for PMSE users, which is expected to arrive in January or at least during the early part of 2018.

Spokesman Alan March would not be drawn into commenting directly on the guarantee over the guard band but did say that the final announcement on funding might be “a much bigger battle”. March added that BEIRG and other representatives of the PMSE community were “actively pursuing” their Members of Parliament, with the ultimate aim of gaining access to the Treasury department officials and ministers that will make the decision on how much will be paid to compensate PMSE users.

The DTG PMSE Implementation Group commented that it was not possible to say how much the guard band announcement would influence the compensation scheme. “Feedback is that due to the uncertainties around using the band, users should have the option of getting compensation for PMSE equipment that uses 694-703MHz,” the Group stated.

PSNEurope will continue to monitor this important issue as it develops.