|Defending the future of Freeview|
That's the message from digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform operator Digital UK representing the UK's major terrestrial broadcasters and multiplex operators, in its latest submission to Ofcom, defending the corner of broadcasters, multiplex operators and viewers using Freeview amidst plans by the regulator to clear more of the frequency band used by TV services later this decade and considerable lobbying from the mobile phone operators to clear Freeview out of their way.
It also said that digital TV multiplex operators aren't prepared to bear the cost of any future clearance, and consumers shouldn't have to incur costs either.
The top of the UHF frequency band (800 MHz) has recently been cleared for new 4G mobile services (except in North East Scotland until the end of this month), which has resulted in a series of Freeview retunes to new frequencies across the UK during the past year. Mobile phone companies are now eyeing up the 700 MHz frequency band for possible "5G" services, which would reduce the available frequencies for Freeview and Freeview HD further.
Laying out the terms that the DTT multiplex operators, which include the BBC, ITV and Arqiva would be prepared to operate under, Digital UK told Ofcom:
"The multiplex operators would only be willing to co-operate in a clearance process on the basis that they are put in the same position in which they otherwise would have been absent any 700MHz clearance. It follows from this that – in the event of 700MHz clearance – broadcasters (whether commercially or licence fee funded), multiplex operators and consumers should not incur any additional costs that might result from this process. In particular, a 700MHz clearance programme would require costs to be incurred in order to re-plan DTT networks in such a way that maintains DTT coverage, number of multiplexes and the number of channels on the platform."
Digital UK also claimed that the reputation of Freeview would be damaged if a 5G frequency clearance programme didn't take into account the interests of consumers.
"This, in turn, could lead to a loss of viewers and a wider risk to the future of the platform–resulting in a loss of DTT’s key contribution to platform competition and innovation, which is particularly critical given Ofcom’s own view that there is no viable substitute for DTT for the foreseeable future."
Cost of clearance
Digital UK also raised the issue of the cost to consumers and multiplex operators, which it estimated to be higher than for previous changes to the terrestrial service, including digital switchover:
"Unlike DSO and associated clearance programmes (which were planned explicitly to minimise aerial changes), we expect that any 700MHz clearance will require a significant number of homes to change or realign aerials. This is because the previous programmes were able to optimise the use of existing aerial groups as a key requirement of the re-planning approach.Moreover, in the case of DSO, the market delivered (and viewers paid for) the relatively few aerial replacements required, due to the increase in the number of available and attractive channels. In this case, we believe that the scale of any 700MHz clearance will require more substantial re-planning."
"Ofcom should also assess the direct and indirect costs of aerial changes on all DTT homes affected, not just those using DTT on their primary set. Around a third of homes use DTT on at least one secondary set, many of whom would either incur aerial replacement costs to keep these sets in use or have to meet the cost of switching to alternative free-to-air platforms such as Freesat or multi-room fees from providers such as Sky."
"Given DTT’s importance as a second-set platform, these potential consumer costs have the potential to drive viewersto alternative platforms. This would undermine the consumer and citizen benefits delivered by DTT, and would be detrimental to platform competition."
Arqiva previously told Ofcom that 700 MHz clearance could lead to a shortage of suitable frequencies for TV services in parts of the UK.
The platform operator then argued that the consumer may not in fact be the winner in the clearance process:
"In this environment we note the benefits that Ofcom identifies for consumers in clearing the 700MHz band. It correctly states that any benefits would be dependent on alternative means of meeting demand such as Wi-Fi or using other spectrum. However Ofcom does not comment on how successful these alternative methods would be in meeting that demand but rather focuses on the benefits to the mobile sector of clearing 700MHz –cheaper network roll-out, cheaper handsets and access to the network for more operators. Whilst this may, in theory, lead to cheaper prices for consumers , mobile operators may choose to deploy the cost savings in other ways, such as investment in other countries, or M&A [mergers and acquisitions] (such as Vodafone’s bid of Kabel Deutschland), or greater returns to shareholders.
We note that there is very little evidence that the release of this spectrum is being driven by any significant consumer demand for services that need access to this spectrum."
Ofcom has yet to comment on the submission. Vodafone recently unsuccessfully lobbied against the plans to use frequencies for two extra Freeview HD multiplexes, which will launch next year.