The real reason behind the digital TV switchover
I can still remember the News at Ten report when the first details for digital TV were announced and I remember the explainer where Sir Trevor MacDonald simplified why it was possible to fit way more channels over terrestrial broadcasts if you digitise the video content.
Back then, the mantra was all about more choice and not about what it would mean to free up the spectrum used by analogue TV.
To be honest, the official communication from the government today doesn’t talk about this either. It’s all about choice and to some extent making sure everyone can get digital TV (quite a few parts of the UK couldn’t get terrestrial digital TV before switchover).
In reality, the real reason we’re being forced to buy digiboxes or upgrade our sets is to allow the government to sell off the spectrum freed up for fourth generation or 4G mobile services. The money and the benefit to society is termed ‘the digital dividend’.
The reasoning behind it is pretty clear. In 2001, the government sold the right to 3G services to five mobile companies: Vodafone, Orange and the companies now known as o2, Three and T-Mobile (there have been a few rebrands). These companies paid £22.5bn and it crippled them with debt.
The reason for the debt was that at the time no one wanted or needed 3G. I was stupid enough to have bought one of the first 3G phones from Three. It was a terrible phone and I never really used the data services on it. To be honest, I was attracted by the cheap calls and the only other person I could make video calls to was my then boyfriend. The novelty wore off quickly.
But then a few years ago something amazing happened. We all suddenly wanted and desperately needed 3G. Devices like the BlackBerry, the Nokia N95 and the iPhone made us addicted to mobile Internet and email on the go.
Applications like Facebook and Twitter meant we needed to be connected all the time. Tablets like the iPad made us need even more data. And basically the mobile companies have struggled to cope ever since. We all want so much data and there frankly isn’t enough capacity to continue to feed it.
That’s why the need for 4G came about and it made sense to reuse some old frequencies from the first mobile phone services, some military frequencies and finally the analogue TV spectrum. Unfortunately, the mobile companies have been at each other’s throats arguing with the regulator Ofcom about the process for the next auction, that has meant were falling behind.
What’s clear is that the price tag won’t be anything like £22.5bn and that the existing companies will likely win. Three was a new player at the last round and there is some hope that someone new might step in this time around. BT was a winner last time but since sold its mobile company o2 off. Google is always rumoured to be considering a bid but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Apple could bid as well.
The UK is one of the most mature and important mobile markets in the world, but what’s odd is that we will be really late into the 4G game. The UK held the first 3G auction but will hold one of the last 4G ones. I used 4G in the USA as far back as 2009.
There are a few very, very limited trials of 4G like technology in the UK, but there is nothing commercially available. It’s live in some odd places (in a form in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) and will go live in Azerbaijan in time for the Eurovision Song Contest held there next month. Our 4G won’t be nationwide until late 2015 at best.
When we finally get 4G there should be huge demand for it, because there are so many of us desperate to get the Internet on the go. It will also finally get rural areas on broadband, places too far away from a telephone exchange (or with the wrong type of phone lines).
But the most well known 4G device on the market, the New iPad, will never work in the UK even when we have 4G.
That’s because it is running on frequencies used for 4G in the USA that can’t be used in the UK or the rest of the EU. We can only assume that Apple will get a new device out when we finally get 4G although that might annoy those fans who splashed out for what they thought might be a future proof purchase.
*Obviously digital switchover has been going for years and has finally reached the end of the road. But now we have the first 4G trials, it seemed right to feature this story. By the way, I went digital only in 2001.