Q&A: Proposals to reduce frequencies for Freeview

As Ofcom consults once more on the future use of frequencies currently used by Freeview, find out more about what's happening and how it might affect Freeview viewers...

Q: What's happening?
A: Ofcom is preparing for the scenario where the "700 MHz frequency band", currently used in parts of the UK to broadcast Freeview is reused for mobile broadband services. This will mean changes for Freeview (and YouView) viewers.

In the latest set of proposals, from around 2022, the 700 MHz band would be handed over to mobile network operators.

Q: Does this need to happen?
Various European countries including France are said to be planning to make the 700 MHz band available for mobile broadband. These countries are in turn following the lead set by North America and the Asia-Pacific region, where the 700 MHz band is already used for mobile broadband services. Next year, there will be an international conference that will decide if the 700 MHz band can be used in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for mobile broadband. Because radio waves don't follow national boundaries, co-ordination is required.

As for the UK, Ofcom believes that the 700 MHz band is required to cope with the expected increase in mobile data, as we start to use our phones and tablets more frequently to download HD video and do other data intense tasks.

Q: Is this the end of Freeview, or TV via an aerial?
A: No. Ofcom has indicated that a switch away from terrestrial TV, for example to internet delivered TV isn't anticipated until at least 2030 at the earliest.

In recent months there has been intense lobbying from the broadcasters and Freeview platform manager Digital UK in support of keeping free-to-air terrestrial television on the airwaves, and the proposals from Ofcom underline the importance of keeping the Freeview service going.

Q: Will internet TV replace Freeview?
A: Ofcom notes that TV streamed from the internet is gaining in popularity, with new providers of internet TV services having launched in recent years. It notes that such services complement Freeview, e.g. via services such as those operated by Connect TV or those accessed using a Roku box. The recent problems that affected Now TV were noted in the documentation released by Ofcom as part of the current consultation - reliability would need to be sorted before any migration was made.

Q: Do we still need Freeview?
A: Recent studies and analysis cited by Ofcom underline the importance of having a strong free-to-air TV platform and how it benefits public service broadcasters, who produce the majority of home-grown TV programmes. Many older and vulnerable groups of people rely on Freeview - BUT interestingly - contrary to the myth spread by some - almost half of the households that only have Freeview are "ABC1" homes - ABC1 is a marketing term to describe those in the highest socioeconomic groups. So Freeview isn't just for poor and old people!

Ofcom does imply that that the platform will need to evolve as connected services grow in popularity.

Q: Can Freesat take over?
A: Ofcom says: "equipment and installation costs remain higher than DTT [Digital Terrestrial Televison] and it is perhaps unlikely therefore that the majority of DTT viewers would choose naturally to replacetheir DTT receivers with Freesat receivers. Satellite is therefore likely to remain a less widespread FTV [Free-to-view] choice than DTT, positioned primarily for those viewers particularly keen to receive a wider range of content subscription-free and or those viewers choosing to end a subscription with Sky.

One potential obstacle preventing a policy-driven shift towards relying on satellite as a primary transmission mode for FTV television is the challenge of achieving near-universal coverage, even in the long term. Some premises do not have the necessary clear line-of-sight with the relevant satellite such as obstructions from nearby trees or buildings. Other households remain unable to install satellite dishes, for instance because they require landlord or freeholder permission or due to planning restrictions. A specific challenge is also experienced by households within a Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) with no internal satellite distribution system and where there is no possibility of installing an individual dish.

Due to the local and fragmented nature of these challenges, it is difficult to provide a precise estimate of the effective level of satellite coverage, achievable at reasonable cost. However we currently estimate that, when considering all of the challenges set out above, coverage is likely to be less than 95% of UK households: in other words, lower than the level of coverage provided by the three PSB [Freeview] multiplexes."

Aerials, reception and equipment
Q: Will I need a new aerial?
A: Only 0.5% of households are expected to require a new aerial as part of the changes that are being proposed, a significantly improved prospect compared to earlier reports on the matter.

Research by Ofcom indicates that by 2022, 80% of households will have a wideband aerial suitable for the changes that are planned. This is primarily because as older aerials are updated, they are more likely to be wideband ones. Many households changed to a wideband aerial in the run-up to digital switchover.

Q: Will reception improve?
A: The plans indicate that current coverage targets are to be maintained for the main national TV services, especially the Public Service Broadcasters. It's too early to say how it will affect local TV services, but the general coverage areas are to be maintained. 

Q: Will I need a new Freeview box or TV?
A: At this stage it's too early to say. In the proposal documents, Ofcom does not appear to be pushing for a change in the broadcast standard for Freeview channels (meaning existing boxes/TVs would continue to work), although it does see an advantage for local TV services to change to the newer DVB-T2 standard.

Ofcom says that 80% of households will have a newer, Freeview HD compatible TV as their primary TV by 2022, with many more householders still relying on older technology for secondary TVs. It points out that any change in the way the Freeview service is transmitted would cause some viewers to lose their terrestrial TV reception.

To allow for more HD channels to launch on Freeview, a change to DVB-T2 is required. Ofcom has called on the broadcasters to indicate how they envisage free-to-air terrestrial television in the UK to continue, and a migration to DVB-T2 on further multiplexes is still possible, as is a possible future roadmap to migrating to HEVC. The main broadcasters including the BBC would benefit from migrating services to HD only and thus DVB-T2, saving the expense of simulcasting in both standard and high definition. Watch this space.

Q: When would I have to retune?
A: Retunes as a result of frequency changes could commence around 2019 and would take place on a region-by-region, transmitter-by-transmitter basis, as each transmitter site is re-engineered. The retune would be no different to similar retunes that have taken place in recent years for digital switchover and 4G clearance. The Freeview service requires frequent retunes in order to stay up-to-date with the latest channel changes anyway.

Q: What if retuning is a problem?
A: Research in selected parts of the UK indicate that the majority of viewers feel comfortable with retuning their TV. The details of how vulnerable people would get help, if these changes go ahead, are still pending.

Q: Will there be fewer channels on Freeview?
A: Ofcom plans for a main six-multiplex service, as now, allowing the same number of standard definition channels. COM7 and the currently not on air COM8 multiplexes would close.

Q: What about local TV channels?
A: Local TV channels, which are scheduled to use frequencies in the affected 700 MHz frequency range in many locations, would be moved down the UHF frequency band and continue to be available on Freeview. How local TV coverage might be affected remains to be seen, but general coverage areas are set to be maintained.

Q: What about the Irish channels available in Northern Ireland?
A: Coverage of the multiplex of Irish channels broadcast in parts of Northern Ireland, for the benefit of those who can't receive Irish TV direct from over the border, is to be maintained - but on a different (but yet to be determined) frequency.

Q: What about the recently added Freeview HD channels, broadcast on a seventh multiplex?
A: Ofcom thinks that the BBC HD channels currently broadcast on the interim "COM7" multiplex (BBC Four/CBeebies and BBC News in HD) could move to the main Freeview HD multiplex (PSB3/BBCB), thanks to improvements in encoders, which could allow 8 HD channels to broadcast on one multiplex.

Q: 8 HD channels on one multiplex. How?
A: Encoder improvements mean that more channels can fit on a multiplex than before. Until now, such improvements have been used by commercial multiplex operators to reduce resolution on standard definition channels and insert even more channels. But even if they had kept the standard resolution, it would be possible to broadcast more than the number of channels they broadcast on a multiplex using the same parameters ten years ago. In terms of the Freeview HD multiplex, only two additional streams would need to be added, as BBC Four HD and CBeebies HD timeshare. So realistically, the Freeview HD multiplex would have to carry 7 HD streams.

Q: Why was a seventh multiplex started up when it's going to have to close down?
A: COM7 was licenced in the full knowledge that it was going to be a temporary service, at least until the end of 2018, until the future use of the TV frequency band has been decided upon.  

Broadcasters and Ofcom wanted the extra multiplex to encourage more of us to get Freeview HD equipment, which should be able to cope with the retunes that are planned more effectively than some of the older Freeview equipment around.

Q: What about COM8?
COM8 - national multiplex number 8, is yet to launch. Plans for this temporary multiplex are not in the public domain.

Q: When would COM7 and 8 close?
A: Under the proposals, it's likely that they will close down as frequencies are being cleared on a region-by-region basis.

Q: When are we going to have definitive answers?
A: The proposals are part of an Ofcom consultation, open until the end of August. International agreements on the future use of the 700 MHz band are due in 2015. The responses to the proposals, along with further analysis, lobbying and the outcome of next year's World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15) will all determine what actually happens. Mobile network operators are pretty keen to obtain more frequencies sooner.

Q: Where can I read more?
A: The consultation documents are available on the Ofcom website: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/700MHz/

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  1. Any switch away from terrestrial to internet protocol delivered television, whether it occurs before and after 2030, will need to mandate free access. You can't very well replace terrestrial freeview with a 'freeview' that requires an existing 'line' rental. That's a definite step backwards, whether the benefits of IPTV may be.


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