Ofcom has kicked off a two-year study to map digital TV and radio reception in the UK.
The watchdog has asked Brits for input on whether signal quality should be improved, and who should be paid to do the research.
The answer to the latter question will probably be Arqiva. The company has a near monopoly on providing the infrastructure that powers UK broadcasting and phone networks. With the BBC, it provides the radio maps that Ofcom is looking to update. But the watchdog wants to know how detailed the new maps should be and whether off-the-shelf software is up to the job.
Digital terrestrial television (DTT, aka Freeview) and Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) are due for a shake up over the next few years. White Space devices will be intruding into the DTT and DAB frequency bands, not to mention the Local TV stations springing up across the UK. And then there's the big switch off: analogue radio first, followed (eventually) by broadcast TV of all kinds, all of which needs proper planning.
The UK Planning Model, used by Ofcom to schedule switching off analogue TV among other things, was developed more than a decade ago in conjunction with Arqiva (obviously). It originally mapped out just TV transmissions, using computer modelling and with a resolution of 100-metre square, but between 2009 and 2011 it was extended to cover DAB too.
That resolution is one of the things Ofcom would like to improve, though the regulator notes that even a resolution of 100m generates 49 million data points for just the Crystal Palace transmitter in London so there will be a lot more data to deal with.
Better modelling will be necessary, argues Ofcom, because we're looking to make better use of our radio spectrum these days. 4G telephony will be sitting alongside TV transmissions later this year, and when Freeview is shuffled along the dial (again) there could be additional problems. Ofcom would also like to switch off FM radio, but can't until it knows that DAB is reaching everyone.
There are software packages available for this kind of thing, so Ofcom would like to know if they're good enough, or if a bespoke solution would serve better. The companies behind the White Space databases (including Google and Microsoft) are developing comparable software, though in a less granular scale and starting with data from the UK Planning Model (one White Space database provider admitted to your reporter that mapping the UK was trivial, as the model was so good, while the mapping the US had been hugely challenging).
Ofcom's request for input [PDF, surprisingly dull considering its importance] asks that question, and if there are any other impacts on remapping the UK, and is open to responses until 4 October. ®