Cisco has issued a plea for wireless broadband services to win out in the so-called "digital switchover".
The digital switchover involves the turning off of the UK's analogue broadcast signals in favour of digital. The process began this week and is expected to finish in 2011.
As a result, around 112MHz of analogue UHF frequencies will be sold off in chunks. The regulator, Ofcom, is keen to be seen as not favouring any particular technology. The entertainment industry is lobbying for much of that spectrum to be retained for the broadcast of high-definition TV (HDTV) and radio.
NEC, the manufacturer that provides much of the technology behind the switchover, said in a statement released on Thursday that the switchover would give everyone access to affordable digital TV services with improved picture and sound quality.
It claimed that HDTV services could become free-to-air — a development for which it suggested there was great "appetite".
However, the spectrum could also be used for wireless broadband services, such as HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access, including High-Speed Downlink Packet Access or HSDPA, and High-Speed Uplink Packet Access or HSUPA) and WiMax.
Denying UK citizens this usage of the spectrum, claimed two Cisco executives on Thursday, would be wasteful. "That would be a missed opportunity because we believe there is a whole range of innovative services, in part broadband-like services that have a two-way channel, that could be used," said Richard Allan, Cisco's European director of government affairs.
Robert Pepper, Cisco's senior managing director for global advanced technology policy, added that opening up the spectrum for IP services would still allow it to be used for audiovisual purposes. "If you have a mobile broadband platform, nothing prevents the licensee from having video, but that video has the additional capability of being two-way and interactive," he said.
The spectrum in question lies between 500MHz and 800MHz. Another piece of spectrum — at 2.6GHz — is being lined up for auction next year and will probably go to a wireless broadband service of some kind, which could either be based on 3G or mobile WiMax, but the lower frequencies allow much greater propagation.
"Broadband is still an uncomfortable experience for people in some parts of the country," said Allan. "The advantage of having wireless is that the characteristics of that spectrum allow wide-area wireless networks to be deployed cheaply, which will create a helpful, competitive infrastructure or platform for people in large parts of the country."
Allan's views echoed those of the European Commission's telecoms commissioner, Viviane Reding. In June, Reding reiterated her support for wireless broadband benefiting from the switchover, calling it a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" for those areas that are currently starved of high-speed internet access to benefit.
However, the European Commission also supports DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting — Handheld), the mobile TV standard that it wants to power handheld entertainment across Europe.
Calling DVB-H a "restrictive application", Allan said that, if both DVB-H and HDTV managed to get sizeable chunks of the UHF spectrum, "you are starting to eat into that spectrum and limit what technology can be used".
Allan praised Google — which has hinted that it may bid for spectrum in the US digital switchover — as "precisely the kind of potential innovative new player that could come in and provide new services that are creatively disruptive and offer new applications and services by having a technology and service-neutral auction".
Asked how confident he was that wireless broadband would win out in the switchover, Allan said: "From a purely UK perspective, with Ofcom there, I'd give it eight out of 10 at the moment. I'd be very surprised if they're diverted, but in Europe as a whole there's going to be a bloody battle."