Ofcom outlines future plans for more HD channels on Freeview

(updated) Ofcom has today outlined its plans for the temporary use of frequencies for more HD channels on Freeview. Under the plans, two new digital television multiplexes would be created which could carry an extra 10 HD channels on the terrestrial platform used by Freeview.

Ofcom has therefore agreed to a proposal raised last year by multiplex operator Arqiva, the BBC and Channel 4 to use spare frequencies for more HD services, whereby these multiplexes would operate using the new DVB-T2 standard, providing extra HD channels in order to encourage uptake of DVB-T2/Freeview HD set top boxes, PVRs and TVs.

The BBC and Channel 4 confirmed last year that if these multiplexes go live, they would both offer additional HD channels on the platform, with satellite and cable viewers likely to gain access to these extra HD channels, too.

The regulator today started a consultation on its plans, which include legal, licencing and financial aspects of launching additional multiplexes. Multiplex operators interested in running the two extra multiplexes that would carry 5 HD channels each, are invited to submit a "Notice of Intention to Apply" form to Ofcom.

According to Ofcom, if only one multiplex operator comes forward, they will be awarded the licence. If two or more interested parties submit a form, then Ofcom will proceed with a Competitive Award Process to determine who should operate the multiplexes. If no interested parties come forward, then the frequencies would be used for other wireless services.

The consultation, linked with the intention to apply process is open until 4th April 2013.

In November 2012, Ofcom outlined its future strategy for the frequencies currently used by TV services in the UK. It announced its intention to convert the 700 MHz frequency band from TV to mobile internet use in the future, which would result in less frequencies being available for traditional TV services. These proposals are subject to international agreements and how neighbouring countries wish to proceed with their terrestrial TV services, due to the fact that broadcasts could interfere with TV reception in other countries if not correctly co-ordinated.

The 700 MHz band is used for mobile services in North America and the Asia Pacific. Countries in the Middle East and Africa have earmarked the frequencies for mobile services, too. In Europe, these frequencies are currently used for terrestrial TV - in the UK, Freeview channels operate on those frequencies. Meanwhile, the 800 MHz band is already being cleared to make way for more 4G mobile services.

Since digital switchover completed last year, a section of the UHF TV frequency band called the 600 MHz band has been dormant. This is where Ofcom intends to allow the extra two multiplexes.

Ofcom proposes to offer licences to operate multiplexes in the 600 MHz band that run until 2026, with a minimum term running until 31st December 2018. This would allow Ofcom flexibility depending on if and how soon neighbouring countries proceeded with clearance of frequencies for mobile services. If the 700 MHz band was then reused for mobile services, the 600 MHz band would be needed to accommodate Freeview channels, and the extra multiplexes would have to close.

Any future reduction in the TV frequency band would require a major migration across to the newer, more efficient DVB-T2 standard to allow a significant number of Freeview channels to continue broadcasting in the reduced space available.

Ofcom and the broadcasters will hope that the lure of extra HD channels will encourage more viewers to buy DVB-T2/Freeview HD equipment to make future migration plans easier.

The extra Freeview HD channels are expected to be on air within twelve months of the multiplex licence award being made. 

  See also:

Nearly two thirds of the UK population could get 10 extra Freeview HD channels > 
Where are the extra Freeview HD channels going to be available?  >
BBC and Channel 4 propose more HD channels on Freeview (16/11/2012) >

  Special Section:
Background and analysis: Future of DTT 
Find out why there are changes afoot to the terrestrial TV service in the UK. >
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