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Spectrum and the emergency services: Ofcom position, key issues, UK Government approach and red lines

13 December, 2013

Peter Bury, Director of Spectrum Policy at Ofcom, speaking at British APCO’s Autumn Event. Report by Jose Maria Sanchez de Muniain.

The role of Ofcom

Since 2003 Ofcom has been the regulator for the broadcasting and spectrum communications industries. In terms of spectrum Ofcom’s role is to make optimal use of the limited and finite resources of spectrum in the UK.

Ofcom also represents the UK in a number of international forums that determine how spectrum is harmonised and used internationally. At top level this includes the International Telecommunication Union, part of the UN’s Development Group, which determines the highest level of spectrum policy worldwide through concensus amongst UN member nations.

Across Europe (including the Russian Federation) Ofcom makes representations to CEPT (European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations). It is also involved in EU work on spectrum policy through the Radio Spectrum Policy Group amongst others.

Why issues of mobile communications are critical today

Peter Bury highlighted that the propensity of people to use mobile communications for data intensive applications seemed to have no limits, with a rate of increase in such use being widely agreed to be exponential. A conservative forecast (‘as good as any’) predicted an 80 times increase in volume of wireless data by 2030. ‘This implies a very intensive use of a very limited resource of radio spectrum in the UK, and implies massive amount of research and development effort from manufacturers and indeed app designers and people who are representative of users like yourselves to work out how that extra demand can be fitted into the limited spectrum resources of the nation.’

The overall aim is therefore how to find the most efficient use of spectrum that delivers ‘the most bang for every spectrum buck’.

In the context of international work within the sphere of the emergency services, Ofcom is focussed on two strands.

The first is on international standards and capabilities of base stations (and other equipment) to deliver what users need. In this regard Ofcom is looking to the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) to speak for the emergency services’ needs. Bury acknowledged that much was necessary to ensure that the functionality required by the emergency services was fully embedded in the standards, and that they are produced in a timely way with international concensus. ‘So we can start getting advantages of standardised and ubiquitous support for a particular way of doing things, because that has great consequences for cost of equip and staying with mainstream development activity.’

The second strand is spectrum policy, and Ofcom is particularly focussed on 700 MHz, which was described by Bury as having ‘desirable characteristics’, and which is being used across Europe for television broadcasting. There is a question whether this spectrum could be repurposed for mobile broadband and a decision has yet to be made.

Ofcom is working with CEPT group FM49 (Radio Spectrum for Public Protection and Disaster Relief) to define a European approach for the emergency services. This group is of the view that the emergency services need 2 x 10 MHz for mobile data. Requirements for critical voice communications are expected to be addressed in 2015, when the group will also express its view on harmonisation across Europe and utilisation of 700 MHz within a band plan.

Separately, Ofcom is also preparing for the World Radio Conference (2-27 Nov 2015) in Geneva, developing a common European position as well as UK ‘red lines’ as regards particular requirements.

Ofcom has solicited viewpoints from UK Government and relevant departments in order to come up with a common line to take at these various groups.

The UK position – four legs

The first viewpoint is that the use of spectrum should be as efficient as possible. ‘We very much support the provision of mobile broadband which achieves the maximum spectrum and economic efficiencies. The fundamental objective is to achieve efficiency in both economics and utilisation.’

The second is that the UK government supports the inclusion of public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) in 700 MHz, ‘But we want to do that in as flexible a manner as possible, and – crucially – we do not want internationally mandated exclusive allocation for PPDR.’ Bury added that Ofcom – representing the UK Government’s view – was standing for these matters to be decided by national governments. ‘And we think we have the support from other governments to avoid somebody centrally, through majority voting, determining the allocation of bandwidth to particular applications in their particular countries.’

The third leg is that Ofcom supports the use of International Mobile Telecommunication (IMT) 4G LTE by emergency services as opposed to other channels that are not part of the comms mainstream worldwide.

And lastly, Peter Bury expressed Ofcom’s concerns regarding the bottom edge of the 700 MHz band. ‘The issue is that there are currently six multiplexes, about 75 channels of TV distributed to the UK population over terrestrial broadcasting in the 500/600/700 MHz band. We think we could probably squeeze that into 500 and 600 MHz only. But we definitely cannot do it if 700 MHz starts to impinge on that. So very deep in the political requirements of the UK is that the top edge of the TV band should be protected.’ The so-called red lines for the UK are –firstly – that channel 48 of TV should be protected in the context of 700 MHz. Secondly, some countries have suggested other parts of the UHF band (i.e. 420-470 MHz) should be considered for PPDR for emergency services purposes. ‘The UK does not approve of that. Those are bands used for load of other things and some of which are fundamental for defence capabilities which the UK would find difficult to do anything else with, so should not be harmonised for emergency services use – or should not be mandated for emergency services use. If other countries find it possible then that’s fine.’

Emergency services: objectives for future communications services

Moving on from a factual basis to a more speculative one, Peter Bury outlined what he thought were the objectives of the emergency services for their future communications services.

The first he mentioned was more capacity to support broadband services alongside voice.

Second was a clear roadmap for future tech innovation, ‘So we don’t get stuck again in a technology that does not have a large international community of research and development and innovation which keeps us in the mainstream path of mobile services.’

The third was flexibility around provision of services. ‘We want to be able to use a range of suppliers to provide the communications services.’

The fourth was around reducing costs, both of services (via competitive supply) and actual equipment (end user and network), which would be likely to come from participating in the mainstream of technical communications development.


Peter Bury emphasised that the role of Ofcom was to support the ESMCP project. ‘Understanding the emergency services’ needs, development and implementation plan comes from our colleges on ESMCP, and we rely on them to articulate the needs and requirements of the emergency services. So I want to make it clear that Ofcom is not ploughing and independent furrow, we are in support of the requirements as articulated by ESMCP, and that is our guiding principle; we take their lead as guidance.’

Common band across Europe is essential

Ofcom expects a great deal of further spectrum to be harmonised for LTE. In the UK LTE services are already running at 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1,800 MHz, 2,100 MHz and 2,600 MHz. Future candidates which are being looked at include 700 MHz, 2.3 GHz, 3.4 GHz. ‘And it’s absolutely clear to us that a harmonised band plan in Europe is valuable across Europe, and internationally a valuable contribution for the objectives of the emergency services. To increase standardisation reduces cost and it enables us to join mainstream communications.’

However, Bury urged caution as regards reserving a particular bit of spectrum to deliver the requirements of the emergency services. ‘Because it is a direct route to being stuck in a dead-end cul-de-sac world of limited manufacturer support, inability to piggyback on international development community, increase costs, and limited functionality. So we are clear that a common band plan across Europe is essential.’

The benefits of mainstream development and cost are likely to come not just in the 700 MHz range but all the other LTE bands. ‘Because the great thing about LTE is that it’s a world community. Already a number of bands are supported and there will be more, therefore finding the functionality we require needs to be embedded in all those bands so we can access it wherever it is available – and not restricted to some limited area.’


Ofcom’s key objective is to keep all options as flexible as possible. It wants spectrum decisions to remain national but within a common and harmonised band plan. ‘We think that gives us our cake, and allows us to eat it.’ Additionally, although Ofcom’s role is to support the ESMCP with spectrum, the final decision on how resource is allocated remains with UK government.

‘The World Radio Conference of November 2015 is fundamental for taking this forward. The clearance of 700 MHz for mobile data use will be the trigger for people to start developing stuff for that, and it is then that a decision needs to be taken.’

Peter Bury stressed that no decision had yet been taken in the UK about the future of 700 MHz, but such a move would not be an easy one, as 70m people in the UK use that band to watch TV every day.

Looking forward, 2018 is the very earliest (‘if everything works out smoothly’) for any capacity in 700 MHz to be released. ‘And realistically – for planning purposes – 2020 is the time horizon for 700 MHz if that decision is taken for that to be fully available nationwide with all the TV-related equipment replaced.’

Peter Bury pointed out that 3GPP, the standards body which is setting up the standards for equipment, is not expected to finalise its work on emergency services’ voice-over-LTE until perhaps 2018, ‘Which implies products in the market in 2020 perhaps, so my sense is that any issues around this need to be thought out in context of around a 2020-2021 timing.’

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