Ofcom foresees an entertaining 2028
If they haven't been axed by the Tories by then
Ofcom has been busy crystal-ball gazing again, this time plotting out what we'll be doing for entertainment in the year 2028, and how much radio spectrum we'll need to do it.
Besides the fun of futurology, Ofcom's predictions are used to establish policy. Last time it was health and transport, this year it's entertainment - which will apparently need a lot more radio spectrum, despite the fact that broadcast TV will cease to exist and the spectrum is all going to be utilised by the mobile phone companies.
The report (pdf) was compiled by a group of consultants under instruction from the regulator, and proposes three possible scenarios for 2028, with divergent spectrum requirements.
The first imagines TV viewers following broadcast schedules of HD-TV - with some in 3D - mostly broadcast over satellite but with a few terrestrial channels too. PVRs and the internet are used to catch up on missed episodes, but most viewers enjoy the shared social experience of having watched the same TV program last night. That might sound unlikely, but we are constantly surprised by the number of people with Sky+, TiVo or similar who still watch live TV when the broadcaster dictates it.
The second, slightly more optimistic, future predicts the internet providing most TV while satellite is used for live events. A household server is used to browse for content from iTunes or similar, which is then streamed around the house over wi-fi. The important bit here is the removal of the broadcaster almost entirely. Users get their content direct from producers or aggregators, such as iTunes: global suppliers who care nothing for local content or production.
The third option is similar, but replaces the home server with a mobile phone. Content becomes very personal and held in the hand. The report doesn't believe anyone's going to watch a lot of TV on their phones - users will link their handset to a big screen when they want to watch anything more than a few minutes long. Screen size is not the only issue for mobile viewing: apparently users are uncomfortable watching TV in public, as they are concerned they'll miss things going on around them, such as a mugger reaching for their bag.
You'll notice that the focus is very much on video viewing, a leaning for which the report makes no apology. Newspapers are in a quite possibly terminal decline, whilst live gigs are on course to supplant recorded sales as the biggest income for the record industry - perhaps as soon as 2012. So the future of entertainment is apparently in video.
Somewhat undermining their authority is the assertion, by the report's authors, that the cause of the decline in music sales is solely illegal copying. The fact that modern teenagers are expected to pay for mobile telephones, designer label clothes and knives, as well as the latest 45s, isn't considered pertinent.
But with live music revenue increasing at 15 per cent per annum, there's going to be an increasing spectrum requirement for wireless microphones, wireless cameras, and the like. The report notes that the soon-to-be-appointed PMSE (Program Making & Special Events) Band Manager is going to have problems providing for that. The report suggest the MoD might help out, but still predicts a short-fall, especially when the switch off of terrestrial broadcast TV (predicted for 2026) removes the possibility of interleaved spectrum.
Turning off broadcast TV isn't as controversial as it sounds. We might be able to squeeze a few HD-TV channels in the space by using MPEG-4, but the life expectancy of DTT isn't long, especially if 3D takes off at all. Finland is talking about a 2017 review to consider a switch-off date for broadcast TV. That would release huge swaths of spectrum by shifting TV distribution to the internet and satellite - the former being unicast, the latter having lots of room at the top end of the dial for HD 3D TV.
Not only does the report suggest that broadcasters will cease to exist as we know them, but it reckons that ISPs are in for a tough time too. The idea that your ISP provides content - part of the much-heralded quad-play - is dismissed by the report, which reckons users will build their own content from a variety of sources, including satellite broadcasts.
That content will be bounced around the house at 2.4GHz and 5GHz. This is apparently ample for a few streams of HD 3D TV, especially once technology solves the irritating interference problems that occur in those licence-free bands. Not only that, but the report expects some PMSE use to move into the unlicensed bands, just as soon as the interference problem is solved.
Wi-fi is also expected to carry 80 per cent of cellular traffic: a figure based on the fact that lots of mobile-phone calls are made from the home, or when near a wi-fi hotspot, but without so much as a nod to femtocell technology or discussion of how the hotspot operators are going to carry all that traffic. The report does admit we'll need a few more hotspots - 50,000 of them compared to the 15,000 currently in operation - but that's going to be necessary if the cellular networks aren't going to run out of spectrum really quickly.
Even with it the report predicts the cellular networks are going have a tough time meeting needs, and that's assuming they combine into "two rival consortia in 2022".
One area that will remain broadcast is traditional radio, though the report reckons that will all be digital by 2025.
It seems realistic to predict that people working or cleaning the house will still want to hear a DJ playing songs on the radio, but when it comes to more futuristic forms of entertainment, the report is sadly lacking. There is some mention of "immersive sports coverage" and "racing alongside a Formula One race", but admits it can't predict how much bandwidth that's going to consume, and anyway notes that:
"There is a significant and steady growth of obesity in the UK population which could increase the demand for passive entertainment services". ®