Attempts by BT and Sky to restrict the availability of Freeview have been thwarted by the Government. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport confirmed that licences to broadcast Freeview multiplexes can be extended until 2034.
Both companies had wanted to restrict the duration of current broadcast licences. The Government said the lengthy extension ensured viewers can continue to access “easy unmediated access to the best UK-originated content”.
It follows a review of the five out of six national multiplex licences for digital terrestrial television (Freeview). Each multiplex licence grants an operator a slice of broadcast spectrum to carry a number of TV, radio and data services. The first of the current set of multiplex broadcast licences was due to expire next year. This included the D3&4 multiplex, which carries ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
Despite objections from all public service broadcasters, a revocation clause will be inserted. The clause can be activated from the end of 2030. But Ofcom will need to provide broadcasters with a notice period of five years.
John Whittingdale, Minister for Media and Data, said:
“Securing the future of Freeview means people can continue to enjoy its great content while we also protect a vital medium for our public service broadcasters so they can serve audiences in the years to come.”
BT and Sky objections
Speaking in favour of an all IP-delivered universal basic television service, BT suggested the Government should not extend any multiplex licence beyond 2026.
Sky meanwhile objected to ITV plc gaining a licence extension for the SDN multiplex. That multiplex carries channels including ITVBe, Quest, QVC and Paramount Network – and in Wales, E4. It told Government officials that “if the Government were to renew this multiplex for any length of time without the process of re-auction, this would amount to a subsidy for the incumbent commercial licence owner.” Sky also indicated its preference for shorter licence periods.
Shorter licence periods would result in Freeview channels not being able to broadcast. The move would also affect commercial channels including Dave, GB News and PBS America. These rely on licensed multiplex operators to carry their channels on Freeview. Effectively, ending multiplex licences it would force viewers to satellite, cable and internet services.
BBC to delay licence renewal on HD multiplex
The BBC confirmed it would not be seeking a renewal of its broadcast licence of the Freeview HD multiplex until it became clearer what the role of the multiplex would be. At present, its main purpose is to provide an HD simulcast of the main channels. Any change to the current SD/HD dual-broadcasting arrangements will change the role of the multiplex.
In its response to the concerns raised, the Government said:
“The government will give Ofcom the power to carry out a renewal of Multiplex A until 2034 accompanied by appropriate regulatory flexibility via the inclusion of a new revocation power, which cannot take effect before the end of 2030.
The government set out in its consultation document that it was seeking to renew the licences and not seeking to hold an open competition and award them via a comparative selection procedure as set out in the Broadcasting Act 1996, as it did not believe this would be in the best interests of the sector or consumers given the current challenges and uncertainty being faced in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
End of digital terrestrial TV to come?
Digital terrestrial television in its current form is likely to end in the 2030s around the world. The last international agreement on frequency usage assigned former TV frequencies above 694MHz to mobile broadband services. 4G/LTE or 5G (bands 20 & 28) now operate on former TV frequencies. Current TV frequencies below 694 MHz are subject to a review in 2023.
The long-term shift away from digital terrestrial TV follows a boom in streaming services and a decline in linear television viewing in younger audiences. By the 2030s, a generation of older viewers dependant on digital terrestrial television will have passed away.
As the recent events in North Yorkshire has shown, the UK isn’t yet ready to ditch terrestrial TV altogether. In some areas, broadband connectivity is poor and in other areas can be unreliable.
In some countries, trials of 5G Broadcasting are taking place. 5G Broadcasting would involve reserving a section of current TV spectrum for a free-to-view, basic TV service delivered via a 5G Network. Remaining spectrum freed up by closing digital terrestrial TV is available for auction to mobile operators. In other countries, such as Belgium and Switzerland, high penetration of cable and fibre broadband has already resulted in terrestrial TV services closing.