Half-way point for Freeview HD multiplexes, as calls grow to clear frequencies by 2020
Multiplexes COM7 and 8 offer bundles of additional services such as BBC Four HD via Freeview to around 70% of UK households with compatible devices, using frequencies temporarily available until Freeview vacates the 700MHz frequency band for mobile broadband services at the end of the decade.
Ofcom wants the TV frequencies for 5G mobile services, which means Freeview services will have to move down the UHF band, meaning there will be no room to broadcast COM7 and 8 on top of the other Freeview multiplexes.
When licensing the extra multiplexes in 2013, Ofcom allowed itself some wiggle-room, giving it the right to vary the licences by the end of 2018 to enable the Freeview frequency clearance to get going.
The European Commission last week published a document outlining plans to clear terrestrial TV frequencies above 700MHz across Europe by mid-2020, which means it's increasingly likely that COM7 and 8 will need to be removed fairly early on as part of a rejig of the Freeview platform at the end of this decade. As frequencies need to be co-ordinated across borders to avoid undue interference, whatever the final European Commission decision is will have an impact on the UK, regardless of the referendum outcome. In a 2012 document, broadcast infrastructure company Arqiva said it would need to co-ordinate frequencies with France in order to be able to have enough frequencies for Freeview in parts of Kent.
Countries across Europe will thus join the rest of the world in clearing the 700MHz frequency band so that smartphone and tablet users the world over can enjoy high-coverage faster internet connections.
The Switzerland-based European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which represents public service broadcasters across EU and non-EU countries, says it's not happy with the timescales, due to the extra cost burden on terrestrial broadcasters and on consumers having to buy new equipment. While countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands are well on track to complete the frequency clearance by 2020 following re-launches of their terrestrial TV services, other countries are reportedly lagging behind. Spain, for example, has only recently completed the last (800MHz) frequency clearance exercise, that ended in the UK back in 2013. The EBU is pushing for a later deadline.
Here in the UK, in addition to restricting the lifespan of COM7 and COM8, Ofcom has been restricting coverage expansion of the local TV multiplex in various parts of the UK beyond 2018, in order to be able to be flexible in its clearance programme. While mobile network operators were keen to get their hands on the Freeview spectrum by 2018, Ofcom originally indicated that the clearance could take until 2022 to be complete.
As part of the changes, Freeview would become a service based on the newer DVB-T2 standard used by Freeview HD devices and YouView boxes, rendering older Freeview boxes obsolete. The move to DVB-T2 would make HD the standard format for at least the main TV channels, following belatedly in the footsteps of countries such as France and Germany, who are already moving towards an HD future on their terrestrial TV platforms.
What happens to channels currently on COM7 and 8?
As part of a move to the DVB-T2 standard, space will become available on the existing multiplexes to accommodate affected services, if they wish to continue carriage on Freeview.
Even without the BBC threatening to wield the axe on further linear services, space would become available to allow CBeebies HD, BBC Four HD and BBC News HD to fit alongside other remaining BBC services in HD on one multiplex, boosting coverage to around 98.5% of the UK. The additional commercial channels would find space on the remaining commercial multiplexes following a switch to DVB-T2. Any HD/SD simulcasting would be able to cease, creating more capacity.
Ofcom is due to release further details about its plans for Freeview frequency clearance later this year. Digital UK, platform operator for terrestrial TV in the UK, has meanwhile appointed Kate Macefield as the person taking the lead in the co-ordination of the forthcoming frequency changes. As Programme Director for 700MHz Clearance , Kate will manage the move of Freeview channels to new airwaves to free up frequencies for the next generation of mobile broadband services.