In My Opinion: Vicki Nash: Ofcom and the Scottish Digital Network

Attended by over 200 people, a debate in Glasgow, on November 16, about the Scottish Digital Network – a proposed digital TV channel (with supporting online presence) dedicated to Scottish content – attracted a glittering array of speakers, including former director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke. allmediascotland has already published the speeches of Jim Raeburn, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, Dave Rushton, director of the Institute of Local Television, and Dave Smith, managing director of independent TV production company, Matchlight. Here now, Vicki Nash, Scottish director of broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, airs her views. The SDN is the main recommendation of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, set up three years ago, led by former BBC Scotland head of news and current affairs, Blair Jenkins.

THE set question for Nicholas Shott’s review on behalf of the UK Government into local television was, ‘What are the conditions necessary for local TV in the UK to be commercially viable on a sustainable basis?’.

Ofcom’s input took a variety of forms. Firstly, we met Mr Shott and his panel members, as did quite a few people here in this room, including Philip Schlesinger, chair of the Ofcom Advisory Committee for Scotland, who have taken a close interest in the panel’s work. Secondly, we provided a report on the technical options for introducing local TV services across the UK.

Before I get into those options, I want to remind you of some of our 2010 Communications Market Report data about the appetite that people in Scotland have for television content:

* Scottish viewers watch more TV than anyone else in the UK and they’re also the most likely to use television as their main source of local news;

* Viewers in Scotland watch the highest volumes of early evening regional news bulletins of any area in the UK;

* STV’s evening bulletin attracts a 24 per cent audience share and is more popular than the average of other bulletins on the ITV network; and

* 64 per cent of people in Scotland claimed that television was their main source of local news – much higher than the UK average of 49 per cent.

So television as a medium matters in Scotland, with news a particular favourite. In his interim report, Mr Shott noted that audience demand for local TV is likely to be driven by news and information programmes.

What are the options for making that content available? Our technical report provides a comparison of the benefits and costs of using the different platforms – satellite, cable, broadband and terrestrial TV – to deliver local services.

The choice of which delivery mechanism is most appropriate for local TV depends on the objectives for the service. The following factors need to be considered:

* Localness – the number of areas to receive local television services and their size;

* Delivery – how well those areas align with the boundaries in the existing platforms (for example, with existing television transmitter coverage areas);

* The level of coverage required (essentially the proportion of households that should be able to receive the local service); and

* Economics – the cost of providing a service via a particular platform and the supporting business model.

As many of the these objectives have yet to be determined, for the purposes of our study, we considered how local TV could be delivered to the most populated urban areas as it seems likely that the economic drivers for local TV will be most favourable in those areas. Indeed, this view was supported by Mr Shott in his interim report.

We proposed as a starting point an indicative list of 25 large urban areas in the UK, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, and carried out a comparison of the various approaches to providing local TV services in those areas.

Each platform presents opportunities and also constraints.

Satellite could provide reliable coverage across the UK to nearly all households and could offer a single channel number for local services. There are constraints and costs if a finer localness than the existing broadcaster regions is desired (here in Scotland, that would mean the three Channel 3 areas, Border, STV Central and STV North). Also, any local service on satellite would be broadcast across the UK but would only potentially be relevant to a few areas. To provide many local services in this way is likely to involve a high cost.

Cable offers the ability to provide localised television services. But availability is limited to the homes passed by the cable operators, at present 37 per cent of households in Scotland, mostly in the central belt. Households would also have to pay a subscription to receive television services via cable.

Broadband, currently available to 99.86 per cent of Scottish households, offers a low-cost entry to delivery of video. However, our report notes that services delivered in this way are currently not easily found. Also, the current inability easily to watch these services on main television sets and the current level of broadband uptake (which requires a monthly payment) means that local television via broadband would not be universally accessible. Some of these disadvantages are likely to become less of an issue in the future as delivery of content via broadband becomes more mainstream through IP-enabled TVs and other initiatives such as YouView.

However, as many of you know, one of the most compelling statistics in our recent report was that home broadband take-up in Scotland stands at 61 per cent – the lowest of any nation, despite its widespread availability.

And finally, digital terrestrial television, which offers a number of options. Indeed, the majority of our report on the technical solutions focuses on options for DTT delivery. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the Secretary of State [for Culture] has made clear his policy aim to see Local TV on DTT. Secondly, because the options for DTT are the most technically complex.

First, for the non-technical amongst us, a short introduction to spectrum. These are the airwaves used for many communications services, from mobile phones to radio, to terrestrial television. After digital TV switchover, there will be gaps in the spectrum used for digital terrestrial TV so that transmitters don’t interfere with each other. This so-called ‘interleaved’ spectrum can be used for other services on a local basis. Another bit of jargon is multiplex – which essentially means a group of TV channels that are mixed together for broadcasting and ultimately, separated out again by your set-top box or television. There are six UK multiplexes: three used by public-service broadcasters and three offering purely commercial channels.

In our report to Shott, we said that the first option for local TV via terrestrial television would be to use the interleaved spectrum. Local television operators could build new relatively low cost transmitters (probably at existing transmission sites) that make use of these airwaves to target specific locations. This approach is not completely flexible, and the coverage achieved would be limited in some areas. However, both the absolute and opportunity costs of this approach are relatively low.

There is potentially a particularly good supply of interleaved spectrum in Scotland. One possibility is an additional multiplex, operating from 15 transmitter sites, with an estimated coverage of 84 per cent of Scottish households. This development would depend on finalising international agreements on cross border interference and pending decisions by the UK Government on local TV policy. If using interleaved spectrum in this way becomes a preferred option, detailed planning work would need to be carried out to determine the actual coverage that could be achieved.

The second option for local TV carriage on DTT would be for a local service to occupy a slot in one of the six existing UK-wide multiplexes. Coverage would be extensive, but targeting would be constrained by the boundaries of coverage of the existing transmitter network which may not always align with desired areas.

I’ll say more about this in relation to Glasgow and Edinburgh shortly.

This approach would require at least one UK-wide slot to be secured by local services which could mean the loss of an existing programme service to viewers – a relatively high opportunity cost. Alternatively, it may be that capacity could be timeshared with an existing service potentially resulting in a lower opportunity cost. But significant costs may be incurred for engineering work to add the capability to insert local services.

The third terrestrial TV option would be carriage in a new UK-wide multiplex. As well as interleaved spectrum , the digital dividend includes airwaves (known as the 600MHz band) that could be used to broadcast one or more extra national television multiplexes, perhaps carrying HD television services. A slot in one of these multiplexes could be secured by local services and could achieve good coverage. However, this would place constraints on the extent to which the spectrum could be utilised for other services and therefore carry a relatively high opportunity cost. It is also likely that additional engineering work would be needed to add the capability to insert local services into the multiplex. Recently, the UK Government has said that it does not plan to reserve the 600 MHz band for local TV.

All three DTT options would permit local television services to be provided. Carriage in either a PSB or commercial multiplex would offer good coverage, although there would be constraints on targeting local services to some of the locations. The commercial multiplex option would leave reception holes in some of the areas, not least here in Scotland where the commercial multiplexes cover 71 per cent of households, rather than the 98.5 per cent by the PSB multiplexes.

In terms of Scotland, our report identified options for Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Coverage by the PSB multiplexes is good for both cities, although it seems that a significant proportion of viewers in the west of the Edinburgh choose to receive signals from the Glasgow Blackhill transmitter rather than Edinburgh Craigkelly. If the two transmitters carry separate local services, these viewers would receive the Glasgow service. Both the Black Hill and Craigkelly transmitters are in the same technical region. It would not be possible to provide separate local services for both cities and retain full EPG listings unless a new technical region is established which carries a significant cost.

Carriage for a local TV service via a commercial multiplex would achieve less coverage than on a PSB multiplex as there are relays in both cities which don’t carry the commercial multiplexes.

Carriage on a new local Multiplex using interleaved spectrum would be possible in both cities.

Cable is available in both cities as is broadband, although take-up of broadband is an issue, especially in Glasgow, and a small number of households may be too far from their local exchange to receive a sufficiently high quality of service to permit reliable streaming of video content.