Broadcast regulator Ofcom has outlined its preliminary view over what should happen to the frequencies currently used to broadcast Freeview after 2030.
Next year, delegates at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC 2023) will make binding decisions. This will affect countries throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Frequencies currently ringfenced for digital terrestrial TV (DTT) services like Freeview, as well as programme making, e.g. wireless microphones, could be opened up for other uses.
But further limits to the number of frequencies available to Freeview could undermine the platform’s viability.
On Friday, Ofcom published its preliminary view: it is for ‘no change’ for the Freeview frequencies. This would keep the status quo. But it will be a hard sell. Ofcom admits several countries are pushing for a co-allocation. That would allow the remaining frequencies to be used for either terrestrial or mobile broadband services.
Previous conference decisions resulted in the clearance of TV frequencies for 4G mobile in 2012/ 13. Over the last few years, more TV services have had to move to make way, this time for 5G services.
That’s already meant Freeview users have had to retune frequently, lost services and in some cases have need new aerials or filters.
But for mobile operators, the wavelengths of the ex-TV frequencies are ideal. They are better at penetrating deep into buildings or providing better coverage in rural areas.
- Until digital switchover, terrestrial TV services operated between 474 and 850 MHz. A lot has changed since then:
- 474-694 MHz: Frequencies still assigned to terrestrial TV and programme-making. It’s these frequencies that are now under review.
- 700-850 MHz: Frequencies cleared of TV services for 4G and 5G Services following previous WRC decisions. [The last remaining frequency 746 MHz is being cleared of TV services on 30th June 2022.]
What Ofcom has said:
“Our priority will be to ensure that, following the outcome of WRC-23, DTT services can continue to operate in the 470-694 MHz. Any decision on the future use of this band in the UK rests with the UK authorities.
We also note that, recognising the types of technologies currently used in domestic television and mobile broadband wireless services, sharing of the band between these services is not feasible in the same frequencies in the same geographical area. (i.e., both the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands were cleared of broadcasting to make the widest and most rapid possible deployment of mobile broadband services.)
Nor do we feel that a reequipping of domestic TV to facilitate sharing between broadcast and mobile services is either feasible or practical at this stage.”
Freeview licence revocation clause
In preparation for a potential change in the future, broadcast licences for Freeview multiplexes will be issued with an expiry date of 2034. But these will include a revocation clause. The decision to insert a revocation clause was made by the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport. It consulted with stakeholders last year on the matter.
Ofcom is due to complete a review into the future of terrestrial TV in 2025. It then has the power to serve a five year notice period on Freeview multiplex operators, coming into effect as early as 2030 – just eight years away.
Ofcom inclined to carry on regardless
However, the regulator argues that even if the international agreement opens up the frequencies for mobile technologies, it could still use it for terrestrial TV. Ofcom maintains it would be in accordance with the Radio Regulations and would continue to be free to use the TV frequency allocations agreed in Geneva in 2006.
Arguably, by the 2030s, fewer viewers will be entirely reliant on Freeview for their TV services.
- older audiences,
- those living in areas with poor broadband,
- those living in places where a satellite dish installation is not permitted. (Bilsdale transmitter covers parts of two National Parks),
- viewers with low incomes unable to afford high speed internet connections. (Full fibre packages that allow a household to use the internet without issues cost more than lower speed options.)
Others want to retain Freeview because it guarantees a universal free-to-air service.
Ofcom now wants to hear from industry stakeholders in a call for input, open until 29th September 2022. In addition to the Ofcom view on the future use of Freeview frequencies, other discussion points include:
- the usage of spectrum for space weather sensors,
- spectrum for mobile broadband: For example Ofcom is seeking clarity over the Upper 6 GHz band. Currently both the Wi-Fi Industry and Mobile industry claim rights over the frequencies.
Aidan Smith, editor RXTV
Updated 26/06/2022 10:42