The challenges facing UK business radio

One of the major issues facing the UK business radio community is the lack of spectrum in some areas of the country, particularly London. So moves to potentially reallocate the UHF 2 Band (450 MHz to 470 MHz) used by business radio in the UK are of considerable concern.

The issue is that business radio is the biggest user of the UHF 2 Band, but its current use and configuration make it challenging to manage efficiently, with particular implications for managing congestion, future competing demand, and interference. There are proposals – particularly in Continental Europe – to repurpose the band for other uses.

Ofcom is in the final stages of preparing its consultation into possible future uses of the band. However, there is little data available on what expected future usage of UHF 2 might look like, so the Federation of Communication Services (FCS) undertook a survey of its members earlier this year to get their views, with the aim of submitting the responses to Ofcom.

Tim Cull, Head of Business Radio, FCS, says: ‘Ofcom is doing a really good job on UHF 2 and it is taking a very accurate measure of the temperature of the water. A lot of the questions in its mind are becoming much clearer for it.’

The latest Ofcom consultation is not out yet, so the business radio community is waiting to hear what it will say. ‘But Ofcom is communicating with everyone involved to work out what their strategic approach to UHF 2 Band should be,’ says Cull.

‘The UHF 2 Band supports some quite important services for the UK, so we need to know what is going on, but the band is desperately fragmented. So, whatever Ofcom finally decides to do, it has to take into account a huge reorganisation process.’

This is because the UK has one of the most congested UHF 2 Bands, as it accommodates some 30 different user groups that all utilise it at different times and in different ways. ‘I don’t envy Ofcom’s job to refarm UHF 2,’ he says.

FCS UHF 2 Survey

Turning to the FCS survey on future growth in occupancy in the UHF 2 Band, the key message from members is that they expect it to grow considerably. The percentage change in total band occupancy is predicted to be 41.63%. All applications are predicted to increase: voice occupancy by 17.04%; data occupancy by 85.38%; and IoT/Telemetry occupancy by 160.44%.

Cull says: ‘Ofcom agrees with the occupancy predictions of our survey on expectations of usage going forward. We had some surprising results, while others were much as expected.’

The value placed on continuing voice services was no surprise, for example. The FCS’ conclusion is: ‘Users already have voice, they know exactly why they need voice, that isn’t going to change and UHF 2 is the right band for this service.’

Another unsurprising result was the expectation that the use of business and mission-critical services will grow. ‘These are the types of services that are so important to a business they cannot afford for it to go wrong, because something bad will happen if it does,’ explains Cull.

‘There are usually safety implications attached to this too, which would be even worse,’ he continues. ‘If you don’t provide the right safety regime you are liable as a company.’ The conclusion is that the need for spectrum to accommodate this mission-critical requirement is therefore becoming stronger, not weaker.

‘When things go wrong, people switch to voice, because everyone wants to talk,’ he says. ‘So everyone, including Ofcom, and all credit to them for it, agrees that voice will be more important, not less in the future.’

A rather more surprising result from the survey was the expectation that there will be a huge rise in data services. ‘The perceived value to organisations of data is no different in the business radio world than in any other, and usage is growing fast,’ says Cull. ‘People are starting to rely on data more, so they too are beginning to hunt for higher resilience systems,’ he notes.

4G LTE may be a very good and fast transmitter of data, but how reliable are public cellular networks? ‘It depends what you think the future of public communications will be,’ says Cull. ‘Some people are of the view that more and more data of all kinds – including social media – will pile onto mobile networks. In which case, will they be able to maintain an extremely high quality of service provision?

‘They may become more of a best-effort network, which may be less than some, although not all, customers may want. Those more- demanding customers may then turn to more resilient operators with PMR networks and ask what they can do for them,’ says Cull.

However, the concern is that some mission-critical data has to be quite resilient and quite fast. ‘That is a bit of problem,’ observes Cull, ‘because if you need, say 1Mbps throughput, something sufficient to carry low-quality streamed video, can we host that in the UHF 2 band? It will depend on the numbers. If it is only a few customers that will be okay, but if it is most of the customer base that is another thing.’

Cull’s personal view is that UHF 2 will not be able to host data usage to a sufficient level, so the industry may have to look at other bands and see if the necessary level of resilience can be added to them.

He points out that the UK’s Emergency Services Network is an example of this kind of thinking. EE is beefing up the coverage, availability and resilience of its existing best effort 4G public commercial network to enable it to support mission critical levels of service for the emergency services.

Consultation paper 

The expectation is that Ofcom will probably try to get its UHF 2 Band consultation paper out before the end of the year, but Cull does not expect it to include huge refarming proposals. ‘Where it goes wrong of course is international co-ordination if neighbouring countries do something else with the band,’ he says.

In fact, Ofcom told delegates at the FCS Business Radio Event on 17 November 2016 that the consultation paper will recommend very little change to UHF 2 usage – so this is good news for the business radio community in the UK.

However, Cull notes that one of the consequences of Brexit is that if the EU does come out with a directive saying the UHF 2 Band must be used for a particular purpose, then the UK will no longer have to obey that.

‘The future of the UHF 2 Band is far from being a dead topic,’ he concludes. ‘We won’t run another survey as we think this one has raised enough questions. But this will run and run; the whole industry will be affected by this.’

Uncontrolled interference from proximate transmitters

A new threat emerged this year in the shape of interference from non-business radio installations sited close to business radio base stations and repeaters. In some cases, the FCS reports the interference is so harmful it has almost wiped out transmissions from nearby business radio installations, rendering them unusable.

In May, the FCS told members that: ‘The problem arises because the sideband and spurious transmissions from these new schemes, while apparently within legal limits as defined by the Harmonised Standards under the R&TTE Directive, are nevertheless still very high and extend over a very large frequency range.’

The expectation was that Ofcom would require the operators of these new schemes, which are often for Internet of Things (IoT) applications, such as remote controllers for street lighting, to take remedial action. However, Ofcom’s initial view was that it is powerless to do anything if the transmitters meet the basic Harmonised Standard irrespective of whether harmful interference results.

Reflecting on this now, Tim Cull says: ‘The thing with all of these issues is to ask: what is the danger; and is the danger really going to be massive and quick to take effect? You don’t really find that out until you see how big the problem is.’

He observes that generally the UK radio communications industry is one where people get on and co-operate to sort something out between them without having recourse to Ofcom.

‘What’s gone wrong in this instance is that the installers not only installed their transmitters in a silly place, but they then refused to co-operate afterwards – and that is a rare thing. So, we need to find out how typical this might turn out to be,’ says Cull.

He reports that since those initial installations were implemented, word has got out and a work around the issue does seem to be happening. ‘But how big the problem will get is difficult to say because it is early days yet for these kinds of IoT installations. But if it does go wrong, it really goes wrong, and you can prove that mathematically.’

The situation so far then is that there is not a deluge of serious interference problems; more like a steady trickle that is being noted, and despite the initial hiccoughs, so far people are managing to work around it.

‘The good news is that many of the IoT installers are business radio installers too, so they are aware of the problem unlike those first two installers who caused the initial alarm. So, it is early days and we’ll see how it goes,’ says Cull.

‘I think the exercise we went through to raise attention of the issue was very useful. People need to know they can’t just stick these things up without thinking even if they are as yet few in number,’ he says.

The FCS was considering creating a technical study with the aim of submitting a specification proposal to CEPT and ETSI, but has decided to wait until it is clear that proximate interference is really is going to be a huge problem.

‘We are keeping a watching brief,’ says Cull. ‘No one is changing their view about the potential trouble this could cause though. It will be a horrific problem if the millions of IoT devices predicated do happen, but it seems to be evolving less quickly than expected.’

Image Credit: NakoPhotography / Shutterstock

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.