A review of the future of Freeview is outlined in the Government’s White Paper on broadcasting.
The digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform that underpins Freeview is only technically safeguarded until 2030. At the same time, online-based TV services are growing in popularity, meaning fewer viewers for traditional TV channels.
Under the plans unveiled by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Ofcom will be tasked to review DTT.
The regulator has been tasked to continue tracking DTT viewing levels. By the end of 2025, Ofcom will undertake a review on market changes that may affect the future of DTT broadcasts.
Meanwhile, Digital UK, Freeview’s platform operator continues to develop its hybrid service Freeview Play. Its roadmap sees new devices getting IP-fallback, allowing viewers to stream Freeview channels instead of accessing them through an aerial. This is expected to help preserve Freeview in the long-term as an online service. However, it is highly dependant on the availability of stable and affordable broadband connections.
All new Freeview multiplex licences issued by Ofcom have a built-in revocation clause. The clause can be triggered from 2030. Without revocation, licences would run until 2034.
Meanwhile, the Government has also confirmed the UK doesn’t yet have a position ahead of international negotiations on the future use of current TV frequencies.
Next year, delegates from around the world will meet for the ITU World Radiocommunications Conference. Here, decisions will be made on the future use of terrestrial TV frequencies. Current terrestrial TV frequencies are only safeguarded until 2030.
TV frequencies re-used for mobile services
Previous World Radio Conference decisions forced countries to co-ordinate TV frequency clearance to make way for 4G and 5G. In the UK, this resulted in numerous Freeview frequency changes:
How TV frequencies have been lost to mobile
Following digital switchover.
Clearance of 800MHz TV frequencies for 4G.
Clearance of 700 MHz TV frequencies for 5G.
Frequency changes completed in 2020. But COM7 Freeview multiplex to close in June as last frequency block cleared.
Possible clearance of remaining frequencies (474-700 MHz) for online services.
International decision to be made at United Nations Agency ITU’s World Radiocommunications Conference 2023.
A number of European countries are supporting moves to preserve some frequencies for cultural and broadcasting services. Early pilots of 5G Broadcast, a way of distributing free-to-air TV through 5G networks, but without a SIM, network contract or data allowance, are taking place. 5G Broadcast services would be available on any screen/device that supported 5G reception.
Other countries and technology providers support the reuse of additional terrestrial TV frequencies. In the USA, the 600 MHz TV frequencies are already in the control of 5G network operators. The move has been disastrous for owners of wireless microphones and in-ear monitors used in the entertainment industry, who also use the same frequencies.
What the Government said in its white paper:
We recognise that the DTT platform and its future will continue to remain an ongoing area of interest for the sector and that this will be an important area for the UK in developing the UK’s position for the next International Telecoms Union World Radio Conference in 2023 where the future allocation of the spectrum currently allocated to DTT will be a substantive agenda item. Maintaining investment and confidence in the future of the DTT platform is important which is why the government has enabled the long term renewal of the licences through to 2034. In addition, the government will ask Ofcom to continue to track changes to DTT viewing and to undertake an early review on market changes that may affect the future of content distribution before the end of 2025.
Any consideration of switching away from DTT would need to reconcile more wide-ranging issues, such as the fact that receiving and watching DTT is ‘free’ if you pay for your TV licence, but to receive and watch IPTV also currently requires that consumers have access to a sufficiently fast broadband connection. While the future of distribution is uncertain, and decisions on IPTV do not need to be taken now, there will need to be extensive public debate on these issues in due course. These are also the type of issues we would expect Ofcom’s 2025 review of DTT to start to consider.Excerpts from “Up Next” Government White Paper on future of broadcasting, published by DCMS 28/04/2022.
By Aidan Smith, editor RXTV
Additional reporting by Iain Hatton, features writer RXTV. Technical research courtesy of Mike Manning, freelance advisor.
Last updated 12:25 29/04/2022