Terrestrial TV services like Freeview could be upgraded to provide widespread UHD content, plus seamless integration of on-demand and internet-delivered content according to a new roadmap launched by broadcast network operators.
Broadcast Networks Europe, which includes the UK’s Arqiva and Ireland’s 2rn as its members, has set out how it sees the potential future of terrestrial TV.
The network operators are currently fighting to retain TV frequencies beyond 2030 at the World Radiocommunications Conference this year.
The newly published roadmap sees terrestrial networks upgraded to HEVC or VVC codecs. HEVC has already been used in a number of countries to move to all-HD terrestrial broadcasting. VVC would allow the same number of UHD channels to broadcast in the space used by HD channels. The upgrade would also support services using High Dynamic Range (HDR). It’s a feature currently mostly reserved for satellite, cable and online services.
Additionally, integration with 5G Broadcast and DVB-I paves the way for free-to-air terrestrial TV services to be received on mobile devices or in-car entertainment systems.
In the UK, Arqiva has launched the Broadcast 2040+ campaign to retain terrestrial TV services. According to Arqiva, two MPs have asked for confirmation on the action Government is taking to secure broadcast services.
Existing UHD services
During the 2022 World Cup, UHD broadcasts via terrestrial TV were offered via pop-up channels in Spain and Poland.
- RTVE’s broadcasts reached 60% of the population.
- In Poland, TVP’s 4K UHD coverage had a technical reach of 95% of the population via digital terrestrial TV.
Why is the future of digital terrestrial TV uncertain?
After taking control over two chunks of terrestrial TV spectrum in the past 11 years, mobile network operators want access to the remaining terrestrial TV frequencies. Who will ultimately gain access may be determined at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) at the end of the year.
But aren’t more viewers streaming via the internet, making terrestrial TV redundant?
Broadcast network operators argue that the remaining terrestrial TV frequencies can be reused for next generation UHD services and for 5G Broadcast, alongside other cultural applications.
They express concern that broadcasters would otherwise be dependent on just a few powerful gatekeepers that would control access to content.
If mobile network operators secured current TV frequencies, it would hand more frequencies to just three or four operators per country. In many countries, the owners of mobile network operators also control fixed line internet services or fibre networks. This increases their dominance in terms of what citizens can watch and for how much that service will cost.
Isn’t live TV dying? Why keep frequencies for TV services?
While the number of live TV channels could fall in the next decade, the capacity could be used to improve the quality of remaining channels to UHD/HDR standard.
And with HbbTV, DVB-I and 5G Broadcast, on-demand and catch-up content can be offered through terrestrial TV services.
HbbTV – hybrid broadcast broadband TV. Used by red button applications, it allows viewers to access on-demand content, e.g. BBC iPlayer via the red button.
DVB-I – allows viewers to seamlessly switch from broadcast to broadband delivered signals on mobile and traditional TV viewing devices.
5G Broadcast – using current TV transmitter networks to create a 5G network just for broadcasting TV, radio and on-demand content. Can be used to target mobile devices, in-car entertainment systems or home use. There’s no need to subscribe to a mobile network/ISP to access this content.
What about other users of the spectrum?
Broadcast network operators say current radio astronomy use and PMSE (Programme Making and Special Events) users would continue to have access to the frequencies. And there’s the potential for downlink-only services for licensed media operators or special use systems, like Emergency Warning Systems.
PMSE is an important user of spare frequencies in the current UHF band. The frequencies are used by various wireless equipment in the production of concerts, sports coverage and major state events. It’s usage is growing across Europe. In the USA, where spectrum is already reallocated to mobile usage, industry users report no-go areas or areas where it is difficult to guarantee interference-free usage.
What does the mobile industry have to say?
The mobile industry says the extra spectrum is needed to satisfy demand for growing internet use.
That’s why the mobile industry will be targeting both the current TV frequency band (470-694 MHz) and the 6GHz band at WRC-23. They’ll be going head-to-head with the broadcast industry for 470-694 MHz and the wi-fi industry for 6GHz spectrum.
Specifically regarding the sub-694 MHz frequencies, Luciana Camargos, head of spectrum at the mobile industry association GSMA, told Policy Tracker that the frequencies are “vital for driving digital inclusion”. The argument is that the lower frequencies penetrate further, improving coverage. It’s been an argument used by mobile network operators to gain access to both the 700 and 800MHz frequency bands previously used by TV.
Can’t both co-exist?
Where mobile telephony/broadband services exist next to other users, interference can and does occur. At the moment, the solution is to provide filters to affected households. TV and mobile services are segregated, using separate frequency bands.
However, tests have shown that 5G Broadcast can sit alongside existing terrestrial TV and PMSE users. Unlike other 5G services, 5G Broadcast can be allocated to individual UHF TV frequency channels like current TV services.
Can’t services like PMSE move to other frequencies?
Campaign group Save Our Spectrum explains why this is not possible:
“Artists want to move freely on stage with their radio microphone. This is possible only at 470 to 694 MHz, since body interference is minimal within this frequency range (which is why pacemakers use the frequency band around 400 MHz). Body interference increases at higher frequencies. This causes unwanted directional effects to occur. The artist may end up in dead spots while moving around on stage. Physically, the wavelength must be longer than the diameter of the body. This does not occur at higher frequencies. Only TV UHF can do this.”
They also point out that the frequencies in the UHF spectrum can penetrate stage structures, but other frequencies can’t. Save our Spectrum notes: “Higher transmitting power cannot compensate for this, because the transmitting power of our microphones is limited by law. It would also significantly reduce battery life. Larger batteries and transmitters are not an option.
The audience would see them on the costumes.”
Doesn’t the BBC want to ditch traditional broadcasting and go online-only?
The BBC, eyeing up a potential future as a commercially funded business, has set out its position on going internet only. But technologies like 5G Broadcast can bridge the gap between going online and still being available free-to-air via terrestrial airwaves.
Decisions made over terrestrial TV will determine how freely users can access audio-visual services going forward. Or whether there will be an expectation that ISPs will act as gatekeepers to content.