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Ofcom sets out Olympic spectrum plan

Government asked to pay for it all

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

UK regulator Ofcom has laid out a consultation plan for radio spectrum use during the London Olympics in 2012, ensuring that even if the games fail to be spectacular, at least the coverage will be wireless.

Ofcom reckons there'll be more than 21,000 accredited media personages descending on London come July 2012, who will want 350 wireless mics, 75 simultaneous HD video streams - three of which will be in the air - and a fair proportion of the 781 talkback* channels the event is expected to use, with the UK government footing the bill at the calculated market rate for enough of the electromagnetic spectrum to carry it all.

And quite a swathe of spectrum it is too - promised for free as part of London's bid to run the games. Ofcom is ideologically opposed to handing spectrum over for free, so reckons the UK government is going to have to foot the bill based on AIP**. "We believe that, where fees for spectrum users at the London Games are waived under the Government guarantees, those fees should be met by the Government," it states.

But that spectrum still has to come from somewhere, and the Ministry of Defence is going to lend chunks of spectrum to supplement the bands that will become available thanks to the switching off of analogue TV three months prior to the games (April 2012). Other than that it's mainly stretching the normally-used bands to capacity and trying to encourage the use of wires.

Ofcom does have some ideas for reducing the bandwidth requirements at the event - the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) has signed a deal with Airwave, who run a private cellular network for the UK's emergency services, to provide communications for the event using their already-owned spectrum, and Ofcom is hoping many of the groups attending will make use of that deal for their own private radio requirements.

The regulator is also hoping users of cameras and other wireless kit can be convinced to use "free-space optics", or infrared as it's commonly known, optimistically pointing out: "These do not suffer from radio interference, do not require a licence to operate and can meet communications needs where certain microwave links are not allowed (e.g. near airports). We understand such technologies are also very quick to set up."

Question eight even explicitly asks if respondents would consider using such a thing, despite the fact that a video stream being sent over IR would be interrupted by bright sunlight or someone walking across the transmission path.

Another proposal from the regulator is to set up a network of high-frequency receiving sites around the venues, connected together with fibre optics and free to use. Broadcasters could use low-power and high frequency connections to attach their kit to the nearest site and then pull their stream out again elsewhere on the network. That's just an idea at the moment, and Ofcom is open to suggestions on the whole thing (pdf) until August 5.

Ofcom reads the government's commitment as being limited to providing spectrum for the games and mandatory ceremonies including opening and closing, but excluding any provision for emergency services, not to mention public service and transport - they'll have to buy their own spectrum, or just shout to each other.

The consultation contains only the smallest of nods to Boris' "hand-held devices" that are supposed to provide video replays to visitors - Ofcom notes that the Olympic Broadcast Services would like 8MHz of ex-analogue TV spectrum for transmitting video to punters within the venues, but makes no attempt to allocate such a thing beyond putting OBS in the "Non-guaranteed services" section.

The regulator is also having nothing to do with any "Olympic legacy" - once the Paralympics are over spectrum goes back to its owner, or to the auction block, post-haste. ®

Bootnotes

*Talkback is used for issuing instructions to performers, workers, etc.

**Administrated Incentive Pricing - Ofcom sticks a finger in the air to guess what a chunk of spectrum would be worth at auction, then charges that amount.

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