COMMENT It's 15 years since digital terrestrial television launched in the UK, but the next 15 years are far from certain as mobile phone companies eye up more TV frequencies.
Originally the platform was dominated by pay TV service OnDigital, later ITV Digital. Poor coverage, piracy issues, strong competition from Sky and overspending on sports rights helped the pay TV service flop in 2002.
By October 2002, the platform was relaunched under the Freeview brand in association with the BBC and transmitter company Crown Castle (later Arqiva). Pay TV on terrestrial was revived in 2004 when Top Up TV launched. That service closed on the 31st October 2013. Freeview became an almost overnight success, with the number of households with Freeview skyrocketing during the mid-00s, prompting broadcasters to pay over £10 million for new slots on Freeview as they became available.
Between 2008 and 2012, under the oversight of Digital UK, digital switchover saw the digital terrestrial TV service replace the old analogue service on a region-by-region basis, following successful switchover trials in Ferryside and Whitehaven.
Now, according to Ofcom statistics, three in four homes have access to the Freeview service, with 40% of households using Freeview as their primary service.
Freeview HD channels launched as part of digital switchover in the Granada region in December 2009. The Freeview HD platform was officially launched to consumers in March 2010 with the introduction of new Freeview HD compatible DVB-T2 boxes into retail outlets.
This year sees the introduction of local TV and extra Freeview HD channels in some locations.
The next fifteen years of digital terrestrial television is far from certain. Last year, Ofcom allowed mobile phone companies to claim the top part of the TV frequency band for 4G mobile services, which has required some households to install 4G filters in order to continue watching Freeview without interference.
Mobile phone companies continue to lobby for more of the frequency band used for Freeview. Vodafone objected to the forthcoming introduction of extra Freeview HD channels. It wants more frequencies to be converted for mobile internet use from 2018 or earlier. Last November, multiplex operators slammed Ofcom's proposals to clear more frequencies. TV multiplex operators would like Ofcom to consider other frequencies, more suited to providing high bandwidth in local hotspots for conversion. Digital UK, now the digital terrestrial TV platform manager, claimed in July that Ofcom had underestimated the cost of a future clearance for consumers. If clearance went ahead, many local TV stations would lose access to the frequencies they are launching their services on in the next 12 months.
If the mobile phone companies are successful in their lobbying, and if Ofcom determines that the UK should follow other countries in clearing more TV frequencies for mobile services, Freeview services will need to go through a second switchover to the DVB-T2 standard toward the end of the decade, which would be the only way the current Freeview service could be maintained on fewer frequencies in most of the UK, but would require more aerial changes, and those currently without a Freeview HD receiver would need to upgrade.
With bandwidth now in great demand due to HD TV, smaller broadcasters must now look to the internet to gain access to Freeview households. Already niche channels have found a home via the new MHEG-IC standard used by Freeview HD for streaming services to a portal on the Freeview guide (from channel 225). Next year will see a big push on connected TV on Freeview when the BBC is expected to launch its new Connected Red Button service to users with connected Freeview HD TVs and PVRs. Meanwhile BT and TalkTalk's YouView services, piggybacking on Freeview, will provide viewers with the large scale pay TV service ITV Digital could only dream of.