Broad support for more Freeview multiplexes, but disagreement over Ofcom policy

There has been broad support to proposals by Ofcom to reserve frequencies for more digital TV services on the Freeview platform following a recent consultation by the regulator over its plans for the 600 MHz spectrum, but disagreement over Ofcom's proposed service obligations for the operator of the new multiplexes. There were concerns that if the licence was to land in the wrong hands, any opportunity to offer more HD on Freeview could be sabotaged.

Under the proposals, up to two extra digital multiplexes would be transmitted across nearly two thirds of the UK population. The multiplexes would use the Freeview HD standard DVB-T2. Depending on the outcome of the licensing process, up to 10 extra Freeview HD channels could be broadcast.

Ofcom's proposed service level conditions on any future multiplex operator were roundly critised by existing providers of digital terrestrial television in the consultation responses. Under the proposals, whoever wins the licence to run the extra multiplexes would have to meet minimum coverage requirements, including broadcasting a least one videostream to 50% of the UK within two years of the licence award.

In its response to the consultation, Arqiva noted "Arqiva has concerns that the current proposals do not go far enough in terms of maximising the positive impact of the Interim Multiplexes in maximising the long term sustainability of the DTT platform and hence delivering upon Ofcom’s stated policy objectives.".

The BBC added: "there is a risk that the proposed modest service obligations may lead to unattractive offerings to potential viewers. For example, we are surprised that only one video stream (which need not be HD) is being mandated. Furthermore this might only be available to 10% of UK households in the first year and 50% of UK households by the end of year two."

Digital UK voiced its concerns over Ofcom's intent not to restrict any parties from bidding for the licence, stating: "we are concerned that the factors set out by Ofcom would not preclude an operator with interests not aligned to the DTT platform from acquiring the licences to disrupt the process to the extent possible within the terms of the licence. This could be done by offering only a single subscription channel at the minimum level of coverage – as would be permitted by Ofcom’s Intention to Apply."

Broadcasters were also unhappy over the temporary nature of the multiplexes: Ofcom intends to scrap the extra multiplexes in the long run to use more TV spectrum for mobile phone usage. The BBC stated: "these proposals are not an implicit acceptance that the case to clear the 700 MHz band of broadcasting services has been made by Ofcom. Although Ofcom signalled in its November 2012 statement on its UHF strategy that it is minded to clear the 700 MHz band for future use by mobile services, we urge it to consider fully the outcome of its forthcoming work on assessing both the costs and benefits of clearing this spectrum of existing broadcasting use."

But many respondents were happy with Ofcom's proposal to award the licences with an end date of 2026, albeit with a clause containing a twelve month notice period if Ofcom wants to proceed with the clearance of more frequencies for mobile phone usage. Some broadcasters appear to hope that the case for further frequency clearance will fail, and the multiplexes may actually stay on air longer than currently anticipated.

Notably unhappy with the proposals to add more channels to digital terrestrial television was Sky. It responded: "Sky considers that aspects of the proposals in the Consultation risk being overly protectionist of DTT, and unduly hindering the development of alternate, data-based uses in the 600 MHz band". Sky would like new technology, called "white space devices" to be given priority. Sky pointed out that the UK was "at risk of being left behind as other countries lead the drive to more innovative and efficient uses of UHF spectrum, including by freeing up as much of the sub 1-GHz spectrum as possible for data usage." It lobbied for parties not connected with digital terrestrial television to be involved in planning the frequency band earmarked for more TV services. No indication was given if Sky or related third parties were planning to bid for the multiplex licence.

Meanwhile, mobile phone company Vodafone indicated that digital terrestrial television should be kicked off its current frequencies in the 700 MHz band long before the end of the decade, with the mobile phone giant already eying up more frequencies for its own use. There were also concerns among users of wireless devices that available frequencies were diminishing.

Finally, a member of the public objected to the plans to use horizontal polarisation at the Rowridge transmitter on the Isle of Wight, having recently invested in a vertically polarised aerial system to get the most out of the six existing digital multiplexes after last year's digital switchover.

FUTURE OF DTT  Special coverage

Extra HD channels on Freeview: the proposals
BBC and Channel 4 propose more HD channels on Freeview
The BBC, Channel 4 and Arqiva have submitted a proposal to Ofcom that would allow them to launch up to two extra HD multiplexes using frequencies that would otherwise be dormant until 2018 (first published November 2012) >

Nearly two thirds of the UK population could get 10 extra Freeview HD channels
In February 2013, Ofcom indicated that if the two extra multiplexes were launched at 30 transmitter sites across the UK, they would reach around 65% of the UK population, and more if viewers pointed an aerial at an alternative transmitter >

Reference Guide: Where would the new Freeview HD channels be available and on which frequencies?
Map and table outlining Ofcom information published on the 6th February 2013 > 
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