Ofcom was set up in 2004 to replace the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, Oftel, the Radio Authority and the Radiocommunications Agency. As might be expected, it is a large organisation, and has a comprehensive, if sometimes bewilderingly complex, website which tells us that
“Ofcom exists to further the interests of citizen-consumers as the communications industries enter the digital age.”
The Act of Parliament setting up Ofcom says that it should “ensure optimal use of the spectrum”, and Ofcom CEO Stephen Carter believes that “the best way to determine who uses the spectrum is by auction.”
After the staggering success of the 3G auction in April 2000, when mobile phone companies scrambled to pay the U.K. government £22.48 billion for the rights to exploit the range of spectrum suitable for “third generation” mobile telephones, it was not surprising that the government should point Ofcom in this direction. It is nearly 50 years since Scottish TV boss Roy Thomson famously (and perhaps foolishly) called an ITV franchise “a license to print money”, and now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme with the government apparently regarding radio spectrum users as a virtually unlimited source of income. Spectrum trading – allowing licence holders to sell some or all of their currently allocated spectrum – was introduced for some licence classes in December 2004.
The Programme Making & Special Events (PMSE) sector includes everything from radio microphones and in-ear monitoring in broadcasting and theatres to radio links for motor racing, and is administered on behalf of Ofcom by the independent company JFMG – Joint Frequency Management Group. Ofcom stated that it did not intend to apply spectrum trading to PMSE immediately, but its published timetable indicated that it would be introduced in 2007. In the meantime fees would increase overall by an average of 20% in both 2005 and 2006. These increases were, say Ofcom, “to meet the direct costs of external contractors” which presumably meant the JFMG – which was already unhappy about having to slim down its staffing levels to comply with Ofcom’s cost-cutting requirements, and challenged Ofcom’s calculations.
The JFMG is highly supportive of the PMSE sector, but there is no doubt that many at Ofcom struggled to understand the likely effects of their proposals on users, and there were some who were totally dismissive. During Ofcom’s spectrum framework review seminar in November 2004, the Institute of Broadcast Sound put forward a plea for sympathetic consideration, and during the coffee break an aggressive Ofcom official commented that if IBS members couldn’t afford to use radio microphones then they’d have to use cables. This apparent total lack of understanding of the effects of their proposals, not only on the way that programmes are made but more importantly on the very livelihoods of thousands of freelance users was, and is, frightening. Increases in fees may be manageable, though most freelancers don’t believe producers will cover the increases, leading to reduced margins in an already highly competitive market. The loss of currently used frequencies, however, is not easily manageable.
The UHF spectrum for TV broadcasting in the UK has 49 channels, numbered 21 to 69. Each channel is 8MHz wide, enough for 8 radio microphone or IEM systems. The only UK channel dedicated for radio microphones is Ch 69, so when more than 8 systems are needed in one location, the JFMG allocates other channels as required. This is possible because of the low power of radio mics compared to TV transmitters and the existing gaps between the analogue TV frequencies, which facilitate the “interleaving” of radio mic channels between TV channels. Digital television, however, does not use discrete frequencies but transmits a digital “multiplex” in a frequency “block” which precludes the possibility of interleaving. This effectively limits radio mic users to only 8 UHF systems unless additional channels are allocated. It is impossible to imagine the possibility of freelance users competing at auction for a UHF channel with a TV broadcaster.
The above was written in early 2005, and much has happened in the period up to December 2009. The latest situation was admirably summed up by IPS Secretariat Malcolm Johnson in an article published in the November/December of Line Up.