February 2000
Whose spectrum?

Spectrum -battles ahead?

Noting developments over the past few months, we're beginning to fear that commercial pressures on the spectrum will push governments and regulators towards enforced switch-offs of old analogue technology long before citizens as a whole would wish to change their receivers or benefit from the changes. The pressures have long been foreseen as far as digital TV is concerned with the massive spectrum used by analogue TV broadcasts turning into a potential cash-cow for governments as well as potentially offering many more channels to the audience. As we've noted recently ( RNW Feb 18 and RNW March 13 )the same pressures are building in radio.
Does it matter?
The question which arises to us is how much this offers opportunity for better use of a limited resource and how far could it affect existing services which may not have the same commercial clout but perform valuable services for society or force consumers into purchases they only need to make for the benefit of others. At its simplest, do you want to get rid of your top quality receiver or have to purchase a digital one as well so that strangers can chat on a mobile phone or receive E-mail and news snippets on a WAP (wireless application protocol) enabled phone. Equally would you feel happy to find some emergency services switched to mobile phones rather than existing dedicated services?
What should the balance be?
The questions mean that we need to think about what is desirable and, in this particular context, whether the market place should rule unfettered. Some of you will doubtless think it should; that is not our position as we feel your logic ultimately leads to significant risk of an unfair and unbalanced regulatory system. An exaggeration? Not really if you look at the situation in some countries where a government may well be happy to kick an educational radio or TV channel of the air to boost finances knowing full well that those with the clout to make their views known won't generally be using the educational services (they can afford to pay for their children's education) but are likely to use the mobile phones and pay-T.V. channels that use the spectrum thus released.
Guiding principles?
We suggest that the best guiding principles in this debate, since we think the airwaves are effectively joint property of us all, has to be the greater good of the greatest number. This doesn't necessarily mean harsh regulation but it does mean having sensible open debate and you can bet your bottom dollar that in that debate the big commercial interests won't lack means to forcibly put their point of view. Ideally to us, before any analogue switch-off is permitted to free spectrum for digital rules, should be developed which mean that this does not further disadvantage the underprivileged. If that means some kind of levy to provide free or subsidised equipment for those who would be cut off by the change and unable to afford new equipment, so be it providing the balance is maintained. Equally we would not rule out loss of some of the spectrum currently used by emergency services and for private company communication but again on the basis that the public interest will not suffer. And in this respect we feel those advocating change should have to make an overwhelming case. Watch our reports in future to see how far that case is developed.

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