Digital switchover – the search for a broader spectrum

Signals are essential for data delivery. Since the 1800s, analogue signals have been transmitted via wires, antennas, aerials and satellites, keeping us connected by phone, radio and TV. As digital signal processing improved in the 1970s and 80s, more data could be transmitted more efficiently and with less interference.

The Geneva 2006 Agreement of the International Telecommunications Union set 17 June 2015 as an internationally mandated analogue switch-off date, heralding the development of ‘all digital’ terrestrial broadcast services for sound and television, at least along national borders. After that date, countries may use those frequencies currently assigned for analogue television transmission for digital services, without being required to protect the analogue services of neighbouring countries against interference.

The hope is that the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting will create new distribution networks and expand the potential for wireless innovation and services. The digital dividend resulting from efficiencies in spectrum usage will allow more channels to be carried across fewer airwaves and lead to greater convergence of services. The aim of the Geneva Agreement was to leapfrog existing technologies in order to connect the un-connected in underserved and remote communities and close the digital divide.

Who benefits from digital transition? Digital television re-allocates the radio spectrum so that it can be auctioned off by governments to the telecommunications industry, allowing it to introduce new services and products in mobile Wi-Fi, Internet and other nationwide projects. But governments face both temptation and pressure in terms of ‘selling off’ the spectrum.

Public service broadcasting, often seen as unprofitable, is at risk from the digital switchover if not enough spectrum is allocated for it to survive and grow in the digital age. In some instances, it may need additional protection in law to be safeguarded from spectrum-hungry telecommunications companies.


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