In June, over a dozen Freeview channels will move or close, as an entire Freeview multiplex is closed to make way for 5G mobile services.
Services including BBC Four HD, Forces TV and Quest HD will be impacted by the changes, which forms the end of a multi-year project to reduce the number of frequencies available to terrestrial TV services in favour of mobile services.
The changes will be triggered by the closure of Freeview multiplex COM7 (sometimes also known as Mux E). Last year, EE won the auction to acquire the rights to use the frequency used by the multiplex. COM7’s Ofcom licence expires on 30th June 2022.
The closure of COM7 will reduce the amount of capacity available for both standard and high definition services on Freeview. HD broadcasts will be especially affected, with a lack of alternative capacity available to cater for the higher bandwidth requirements of HD.
Who will be affected?
Just over two thirds of UK households are within coverage of Freeview multiplex COM7. Viewers able to receive any of the channels listed below on Freeview will be affected. They will be asked to retune Freeview in June, when access to some services will end.
Which channels are affected?
- BBC Four HD
- BBC News HD
- CBeebies HD
- Forces TV
- NOW 80s
- Quest HD
- Quest Red+1
- QVC HD
- QVC Beauty HD
- PBS America+1
- That’s TV Music*
- That’s TV UK
*Together and That’s TV Music have recently taken up temporary slots on COM7, using some of the capacity freed up when RT HD was closed.
What will happen to these channels?
Individual broadcasters are responsible for making a decision as to how they wish to make their services available in the future. Ofcom and Freeview are not involved in this decision. RXTV understands broadcasters have discussed options surrounding securing capacity on remaining multiplexes. The closure of RT SD in March unexpectedly created a further opportunity for an affected channel to secure ongoing Freeview carriage using its former bandwidth.
HD services are expected to continue to be available in standard definition (SD) only. Viewers are also expected to be told to switch to the main SD version of the channel where the +1 service ceases to be available on Freeview.
Freeview is expected to issue a service update on what this means for viewers in the coming weeks, as final decisions on the future of affected broadcasters is made.
And this page will be updated with the latest information.
Broadcasters, including the BBC, are expected to push online options, such as the iPlayer. The BBC iPlayer will allow smart TV users to access HD streams of all BBC channels, including those not on Freeview.
Quest HD, originally launched on Freeview in 2018 on the back of a EFL highlights deal, is expected to be withdrawn due to the lack of HD capacity on Freeview. EFL highlights will be shown on ITV from next season. But Quest’s programmes are available in HD through streaming platform Discovery+. Quest is expected to remain on Freeview in standard definition only.
Other affected TV channels have had the option to secure alternative capacity on Freeview before the closure. Alternatively, broadcasters can also offer their services as a streaming channel to connected Freeview devices. That’s TV UK is available through Vision TV (channel 264) using this method.
Why is this Freeview channel switch-off happening?
The frequency used by COM7 was auctioned off by Ofcom in 2021. It forms part of mobile band 28, which is being used for 4G and 5G services in the UK. Specifically, EE won the right to operate mobile services on COM7’s frequency.
However, it’s important to note that the multiplex was always going to be temporary. In 2013, it was created to help broaden the reach of HD channels on Freeview, using frequencies that would only be available for TV services until 5G was launched.
Four years ago, Ofcom agreed that COM7 could move to a new frequency that would enable it to stay on air a little while longer, before the capacity was auctioned off.
Remaining Freeview multiplexes have already moved to new frequencies, as part of a multi-year scheme that concluded in 2020. The Government recently allowed licences for these multiplexes to be extended for another decade.
Can’t COM7 go on another frequency?
The number of frequencies available for terrestrial TV is being reduced. In 2012-13, frequencies above 800MHz were converted for use by 4G services. Since 2017, frequencies above 700MHz have been cleared for 5G. As a result, there is insufficient bandwidth for COM7 to continue on the remaining frequencies.
Will the extra 5G services affect my TV signal?
Any 4G filters you may have installed may need replacing with new filters that reduce 5G interference as well. If you’re an in area where this is likely to be a problem, Restore TV – a company set up by the mobile network operators for this purpose – will be able to assist.
Wouldn’t there be room if Freeview got rid of (enter name of channel)?
Freeview doesn’t decide which channel launches on its platform. Each broadcaster makes that decision based on the cost and availability of slots. Additionally, there is also a limit on capacity that can be used for HD services, due to technical reasons.
As COM7 never reached all households, carriage was cheaper and allowed a number of niche broadcasters – from Talking Pictures to Smithsonian Channel to try out Freeview before committing to a more permanent slot.
Smaller broadcasters are increasingly taking up options to launch on streaming services like Samsung TV Plus, Pluto TV and Rakuten TV, where they can reach smart TV users without the cost of a national Freeview slot.
Do mobile networks really need more frequencies?
The former TV frequencies are particularly useful for enabling indoor reception of 4G and 5G services. And the signals travel further, improving rural coverage and enhancing coverage in areas where locals are hostile to new masts.
However, mobile network operators aren’t always making full use of their existing spectrum in all areas. This may seem unfair on broadcasters who have had spectrum taken away.
Is this the first time this has happened?
No. In June 2020, sister multiplex COM8 was closed. Although it could have stayed on air a little longer, it was closed due to commercial reasons amidst uncertainty over its future. A number of +1 channels, including 5USA+1 and Pick+1 closed. 4seven and Channel 4+1 continued as SD only channels. Meanwhile, most other services were condensed across the remaining multiplexes.
Why isn’t there any room for more HD channels?
Commercial multiplex operators haven’t yet announced any plans to convert more capacity to HD. This is understandable, as until very recently, their future status was uncertain. The Government has recently allowed Ofcom to begin extending multiplex broadcasting licences. As this process completes, the multiplex operators will be able to make long-term plans for their multiplexes.
By Iain Hatton, features writer, RXTV