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Ofcom spectrum sale hurts more than just the luvvies

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Comment Ofcom's consultation on the Digital Dividend, aka selling off the analogue TV frequencies, has attracted more than its share of attention from El Reg readers who are in uproar about the proposed disconnection of the wirelessly connected.

Ofcom is consulting on a proposal to sell the frequencies currently used by analogue TV when the grand switch over to digital starts in 2008. But lurking among the TV channels are hundreds of wireless microphones and communications equipment used by the entertainment industry, using short-term licenses allocated by the Joint Frequency Management Group (JFMG) at, relatively, low cost.

Reader DT summed it up nicely...

Can you imagine Cats being done with cabled mics, or Starlite Express, or Les Mis, or The Lion King? I can't. I did see Superstar in the west end during the 70s and marvelled that no-one got tripped up or tied up in the myriad number of cables that snaked constantly about the stage.

But it's not just musical theatre that will suffer, as Fletcher Fletchowicz points out...

Regarding the sellout of radio frequencies and complaints of theatre types: channel 69, the part of the spectrum allocated for radio mics, is also used by film and television crews. So as well as no more theatre you'll be facing no more Bill, no more Hollyoaks, no more Dr Who, and no more quality UK production anywhere.

...and no more Big Brother. Channel 69 may get a stay of execution as an unregulated channel, but without any guarantee of quality you might miss the latest racist slur. But it's not all good news. As John points out:

This is actually quite a serious issue - both for the professional theatres and, possibly even more so, for amateur societies as well as churches and roaming conferences (and the freelance PA people who provide for such events).

I think Ofcom need to take a good long look at who uses the RF spectrum around the analogue TV frequencies, and allocate various sections (preferably the same as a currently used, having just spent several thousand pounds on radio mics) for low cost, local licences (inc. temporary and non-exclusive ones).

Ofcom is proposing to keep some space available for a while - until 2012 - but with its contract with the JFMG expiring in September 2008 there'll be no one to manage allocations unless it's extended.

Meanwhile, theatre companies are already reluctant to buy more equipment for fear of being unable to use it once Ofcom decides what to do. With an individual microphone rig costing up to £10,000 it's unsurprising they've started renting kit from abroad rather than investing in such an uncertain future.

Some readers, such as Matt Bieneman, looked to a more technical solution:

I and several of my friends have used these systems since they came out about two years ago. They work incredibly well, even in areas with lots of interference and 2.4 GHz AirPort systems. Although I don't have personal experience using 50 or more channels, others do; these systems can work with up to about 100 channels.

According to the professionals, such digital systems are still not suitable for commercial use - not only do they lack the quality needed for theatre, they also introduce an unacceptable latency. The Sabine system also uses 2.4GHz, where competition from Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and even microwave ovens makes guaranteeing quality of service very difficult.

The industry is looking at digital technologies, and developments might take the problem away, but would you bet an industry on it?

It might seem that an industry which claims to be worth £15bn annually could afford to bid for spectrum like everyone else. But that £15bn doesn't come to the theatres; most of it goes to hotels, travel, and other expenses incurred by the 60 per cent of West End audiences who come from abroad. So, the proponents argue, an industry that brings so much to the UK deserves to be a special case: Ofcom should hand over some spectrum for the good of the country, or at least, for the good of the tourist industry.

Reserving a few deregulated channels might help those running church fates or Highland games, but deregulation would in turn make it impossible for professionals to rely on them. The JMFG has set up a site where you can check how the proposals might impact your usage, which will depend on the frequencies you are currently using.

Ofcom swears blind that this isn't about making money, but about "maximising the value that the use of this spectrum is likely to bring to society over time", though the name - digital dividend - would seem to belie that ideal. Promises to work region by region, or hold open frequencies until 2012, will just drive professionals mad and make investment in the industry an even more risky proposition.

As a country we need to decide if the entertainment industry deserves special treatment, because of the money it brings into the country and the prestige it confers on the UK. Otherwise, we could bet the farm on a technical solution or just sell off the spectrum to the highest bidder.

Ofcom is still accepting comments on the proposal, and nothing has been decided, but a great deal more than the next series of Big Brother is at stake here. ®

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