There’s a big change coming to the way some channels on Freeview are broadcast, but what’s really behind the change and why now?
The first of two temporary multiplexes, or groups of channels, will close this month. Multiplex COM8 will be cleared on the 22nd June. The other, COM7 will remain on-air for the time being.
Affected viewers – and that’s not every Freeview user, as COM8 reception isn’t possible everywhere – will see pop-up messages on channels including FreeSports, CBS Justice+1, 4seven HD and Quest HD warning of the changes.
Then on the 25th June 2020, following a short transition period, services broadcast on temporary multiplex COM8 will cease. Seven channels that use temporary capacity are set to leave Freeview, with most other channels switching from COM8 to COM7.
These are temporary multiplexes, as they were set up to use unused frequencies for television services for a duration of less than a decade, until TV frequencies used for Freeview needed to be rearranged ahead of new 5G services launching. Arqiva is the company that operates these multiplexes and they are only broadcast from a selection of transmitter sites including Crystal Palace (pictured above).
What’s the reason behind the change?
If you ask Freeview what’s happening, they will tell you that the channel removal is due to an Ofcom decision.
While it’s true that Ofcom has earmarked some frequencies used by Freeview for future 5G networks, which would have eventually resulted in services closing if they couldn’t be migrated to existing frequencies, it didn’t need to happen now.
While at one point, it did look as if the temporary multiplexes would have to close in the second quarter of 2020, Ofcom allowed them to move to the centre gap of the future 5G band to allow them to stay on air a little longer.
- The auctioning of ex-TV frequencies for 5G is delayed due to the pandemic – current 5G network build-out is utilising different frequency bands,
- Full clearance of TV services from the affected frequencies is also on hold due to recent events,
- Many of the channels changing frequencies on 22nd June are moving from one frequency in the soon to be cleared band to another in the same frequency band in the centre gap between 5G uplink and downlink frequencies.
Earlier this year, Ofcom also confirmed these services could stay on air until mobile networks needed the spectrum, at which point three month’s notice would be served on Arqiva (Ofcom statement, sections 7.8 and 7.80 of this document). This would be linked to Ofcom issuing a new licence for these temporary multiplexes later this month.
So why turn off channels now?
There are pressing commercial reasons linked to:
- Existing carriage contracts with broadcasters expiring this month,
- Broadcasters such as Channel 4 having to cut costs,
- Ongoing uncertainty as to how long channels have got left on the temporary capacity following Ofcom decisions acting as a disincentive to potential broadcasters.
On top of that, COM8 can’t carry as many services either, meaning it can’t bring in the potential amount of revenue it once could. That’s because to keep the COM8 multiplex running without affecting mobile services (Ofcom stipulated that the temporary multiplexes should not interfere with 5G), a 1MHz guard band was introduced at the upper end of its UHF channel earlier this year. This resulted in a drop in available bandwidth as a 167kHz offset was applied and broadcast parameters changed.
So after discussions between Arqiva with channel operators – as the official line goes – many have opted to stop providing either a +1 or an HD simulcast via Freeview, as Arqiva closes down COM8.
But most of the remaining channels can now fit on COM7 and there’s now sufficient room to ensure a guard band between future 5G uplink and downlink frequencies until it’s either deemed commercially nonviable or notice is served on Arqiva. That’s good news for those remaining standard definition channels that have decided against moving to wider national Freeview coverage because of cost.
The commercial implications of keeping temporary multiplexes on air with the threat of being served notice can not be understated: Ofcom was told by Arqiva that there was “no point in Arqiva gaining access to this spectrum if our customers cannot agree commercial deals with us on the basis of the short-term arrangements that Ofcom are proposing.”
As for viewers, apart from some losing channels, there’s little net gain, as for example those who couldn’t previously receive BBC Four HD or Quest HD will still not be able to receive the channels.
For these channels to become more widely available, concrete plans to make more of the existing Freeview bandwidth suitable for HD need to be confirmed. As for BBC channels not yet widely available via Freeview HD, the broadcaster will finally have to decide what it wants to do with its channel portfolio over the next decade as it mulls its options over BBC Three and BBC Four, which will affect how it uses its Freeview capacity.