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DTT comes of age. But what next?

Digital Terrestrial Television has come of age in the UK, with the service marking 18 years on air today.

Launched on the 15th November 1998, Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) began life in the UK under the OnDigital brand, with the majority of channels encrypted. The early days of the service were difficult, with ongoing technical and financial woes - OnDigital became ITV Digital in 2001 and then fell into administration the following spring, paving the way for new free-to-air terrestrial service Freeview to be launched on 30th October 2002. Since then, other providers including Top Up TV and BT have also used the digital terrestrial TV platform as a basis for their service.

Digital switchover completed in October 2012, leaving DTT as the primary method of accessing free-to-air TV channels across the whole of the country. Meanwhile, HD TV was introduced in late 2009, ahead of a public launch at the end of March 2010, making use of a second generation of DTT broadcast standards allowing broadcasters to make more use of available bandwidth to accommodate HD broadcasts.

DTT crossroads
Like a teenager facing life-changing decisions at 18, DTT also finds itself at a crossroads, with its long-term dominance in the UK and elsewhere threatened by frequency allocation changes and the growth of online services. A major international conference last year decreed that another chunk of broadcast spectrum would be reallocated to mobile internet services, following a similar landgrab on DTT frequencies that was implemented in the UK in stages during and shortly after digital switchover.

As it stands, DTT services in many parts of the country are due to change frequencies in the coming years, meaning aerial upgrades and retunes for viewers. Meanwhile, Freeview has adapted to the growing appetite for on-demand and catch-up TV services by introducing  DTT/internet hybrid service Freeview Play, which integrates some of the most popular online TV services with regular terrestrial broadcasts.

According to Digital UK, who oversee the technical aspects of the UK's digital terrestrial platform, 20 million UK households watch DTT while over 108 million Freeview compatible devices have been sold since 2003. Despite the growth of online TV, 85% of TV viewing is still linear and 95% of the UK's most-watched programmes are available to Freeview users without a subscription.

DTT as a platform has been safeguarded until 2030 across Europe following a recent vote by the EU Industry Committee to maintain the service . Even with the UK leaving the EU, the EU Committee's decision will have an effect on any future UK plans to reduce the role of DTT, due to the need to internationally coordinate frequency usage.

The move to protect DTT until 2030 was welcomed by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the Switzerland-based federation of public service broadcasters across EU and non-EU countries. Speaking about the decision, EBU Deputy Head of European Affairs Wouter Gekiere said:
“We welcome the Committee's move to better take into account the needs of broadcasting and its request to ensure legal certainty for DTT services in the sub-700 MHz frequencies until 2030. This is crucial for broadcasters, their audiences and the European cultural and creative industries.”

If DTT was to end in 2030, assuming all viewers can migrate to internet, cable or satellite services, it will have been on air for 32 years, a comparable time to the original 405-line VHF TV service for viewers outside of London. 405 line VHF was available in many regions in time for the Queen's Coronation in 1952, but finally closed in January 1985 - just under 33 years. But 625 line UHF TV has lasted the longest: it was on-air for over 40 years in many parts of the UK before digital switchover brought an end to analogue TV. DTT probably won't come close to that.