Broadcasters revolt against spectrum charges

The BBC and ITV object to being made to pay for the spectrum they use. If they win there could be less spectrum available in the future for mobile services

UK broadcasters are fighting a government-commissioned review into the radio communications spectrum whose recommendations could free up more space for innovative mobile services.

Representatives from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and S4C told the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill on Monday that the independent spectrum review was flawed. The broadcasters are unhappy that the report, carried out by Professor Martin Cave, recommends that they should be charged for the spectrum they use.

The rationale behind Cave's recommendations is that the radio spectrum is a precious, finite resource that must be used as efficiently as possible. Many organisations -- such as the Ministry of Defence -- aren't charged for the spectrum they use, and Cave believes this gives little incentive to use spectrum conservatively.

According to the BBC, though, Cave is wrong.

"The independent spectrum review has taken a very theoretical approach to this issue, with little understanding of the effects its recommendations would have in the real world," claimed Caroline Thomson, director of public policy at the BBC.

"We simply don't have lots of badly used spectrum that should be given up," Thomson added.

Clive Jones, joint managing director of ITV, told MPs that spectrum charging was not an efficient way of making broadcasters use the spectrum more efficiently. "Efficient use of spectrum does not mean maximum revenues to the Treasury," said Jones. Jones added that ITV companies already pay £300m each year to the government in licence fees.

Spectrum charging has been suggested as a mechanism to bring forward the date when the analogue signal is turned off. Broadcasters such as the BBC must currently transmit both analogue and digital versions of their output, using additional spectrum -- so making them pay for both might help them move consumers towards digital.

Both the BBC and ITV, though, reject this idea.

"Spectrum charging would direct money away from developing really excellent digital TV services which would help to boost digital take-up," said Thomson.

Jones agreed, adding that it is the government, not the broadcasters, who will decide when the analogue signal is turned off.

Appearing later before the committee, Professor Cave defended his report.

"Spectrum that is currently being used for broadcasting can be used for other purposes, so we need a mechanism of balancing its value to broadcasters versus its value for other purposes, such as innovative mobile technologies," Cave said.

"Without charges there is less incentive for broadcasters to help drive forward the analogue switch-off," insisted Cave, who believes that charges are the best way to stop the current situation where the same programmes are broadcast in both analogue and digital.

The recent collapse of ITV Digital has led to increased fears that the government's target of turning off analogue TV broadcasts by 2010 will be missed. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell insisted last month that the target would still be met.

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