Screams in and whispers by a lobby

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a seminar about digital TV. There was a presentation by a regulator on planning the digital switchover of their country. A wonderful presentation of a project thoroughly planned and undoubtedly to be successfully carried out. Clearly the gentleman knew his subject and made the rest of us understand, too.

Only a small minority of the households in the country, less than five percent, receive their TV broadcast via an antenna. The rest use cable or satellite, in some cases fiber. The mobile internet market is booming and the lobby at the Ministry of Communications is full of operators screaming for more spectrum. The 800 MHz frequency band occupied by TV today is needed for mobile communication – even the 700 MHz would be, were it available.

Something about the big picture disturbed me, but I could not put my finger on it at first. Then it hit me: a whole DTT (DVB-T2, in fact) network is being built for only five percent of the households! This did not sound good. I started thinking of other options.

The analyst in me took over. A bit of googling told me that the country in question covers an area of approximately 100 000 square kilometers, and a reasonable DVB-T2 coverage requires an investment of tens of millions of euros. There are five million people in the country, forming, say, two million households, five percent of which makes 100 000 households. 100 000 DVB-T2 antennas required, 100 000 set-top boxes required, 100 000 installations required… and the funds to market and support the switchover. You get the picture. It is a sizable exercise, benefitting only a small minority of the population.

What if the government was to ban terrestrial TV altogether? Why not equip the 100 000 households with satellite dishes,  and re-allocate all the radio spectrum occupied by terrestrial TV today to other uses – at least partially to mobile broadband?  Not only would the economy save the cost difference between the digital terrestrial network rollout and the satellite dishes, but also release both the 800 and the 700 MHz bands for auction very soon. The 800 MHz spectrum has been selling at around 0.60 USD per MHz per person. 60 MHz on the 800 band, a few dozen more if you add the 700, five million people – you do the math. Of course there would remain practical issues to solve, such as must carry obligations, but in certain cases the opportunity cost of digital terrestrial TV just seems quite high.

I asked the speaker whether they had considered this approach. The answer was yes, but because of a strong lobby for the terrestrial broadcasters towards the political decision-makers, such an out-of-box solution was not a viable option.

Dear policy maker, which lobby do you listen to, the one filled with screaming operator representatives or the one whispering in your ear about the continued need of terrestrial TV?