Niche broadcasters make their mark on Freeview: but not everyone can receive them
It only reaches just over 70% of households and can then only be received with a DVB-T2 compatible device.
But Arqiva's COM7 multiplex, first launched at the end of 2013 from a number of transmitter sites across the UK, and originally hailed as providing sufficient capacity for extra HD channels on Freeview has now become the home of niche channels, which otherwise wouldn't be able to afford a Freeview slot.
With many major HD channels tied in to long-term carriage deals keeping them being a paywall, capacity is increasingly being snapped up by smaller broadcasters:
Keep It Country (ch.87) and Vintage TV are the latest niche channels to become available on the multiplex, offering music fans something different from the mainstream. Vintage TV, which officially launches on 1st July (ch.86), has until now only been available on compatible connected Freeview devices way down the EPG at channel 242.
Broadcasting on Freeview is an expensive business and distribution can cost millions of pounds a year. But COM7, with its limited network of transmitters, using equipment recycled from before the digital switchover, offers broadcasters a cheaper option to at least reach some of the UK's biggest towns and cities.
The developments on COM7 reflect what is also happening in the world of DAB digital radio, where the new Digital 2 multiplex from Sound Digital is offering broadcasters a cheaper option, thanks to it maintaining a smaller network of transmitters and adopting newer technology: just as COM7 uses newer technology that reduces the bandwidth requirements of TV broadcasters, digital radio stations are now increasingly adopting DAB+, which cuts the amount of bandwidth required, and thus also the cost incurred by the broadcaster.
This trend has not been welcomed by all - viewers and listeners not covered by the transmitters carrying these services frequently object to being left out. But reduced coverage as a result of operating fewer transmitters is one of the keys to maintaining a lower cost for broadcasters. The use of newer technologies, leaving older receivers obsolete is also a bone of contention: Although there are no plans to switch all digital radio stations to the newer DAB+ standard, it's widely expected that the newer DVB-T2 standard will be widely adopted across Freeview channels in the coming years.
As far as Freeview goes, the long-term prognosis for these niche channels taking up space on COM7 is far from certain. Changes to Freeview frequencies, due to start in the next two years and complete in 2020 is expected to see the end of COM7, as services are migrated to one of the six remaining national Freeview multiplexes. The launch and sudden axing of Motors TV, which took capacity on COM7 shows that these channels can disappear as quickly as they arrived. And if the restructuring of Freeview in the coming years doesn't result in low cost capacity options for smaller broadcasters, then they may well disappear from Freeview again. Although by this time, it may be more viable to launch a service as an internet stream to Freeview devices.
Indeed, the organisations supporting Freeview are already moving to facilitate this option: all new devices bearing the Freeview logo will need to be able to connect to the internet. And when more Freeview services migrate to DVB-T2 in the coming years, forcing more households to upgrade their equipment, switching services to internet-only distribution won't be as risky as it may seem.
And at the current rate of broadband network expansion, there will be significantly more households able to connect to superfast internet than can receive COM7 now.