Ofcom Proposes UK Digital Terrestrial Television Upgrade

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007 
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Upgrading Digital Terrestrial Television

Ofcom today announced proposals for a significant upgrade of Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) that will offer more channels and new services to benefit citizens and consumers.

The proposed upgrade will create capacity allowing high definition television channels on DTT – on which Freeview operates – as early as 2009.

Today’s consultation sets out how this can be achieved without using additional radio spectrum, which is a scarce and valuable resource, while protecting existing services.

Benefits of the upgrade

As part of a transparent process, the proposals would deliver significant benefits for:

  • viewers, who would be able to access an array of new channels and services through their television aerials;
  • broadcasters, who would be able to deliver a greater range of services while continuing to deliver the channels that are currently available on Freeview; and
  • the economy, by making better use of the valuable spectrum reserved for broadcasting. It is estimated that the upgrade of DTT could bring benefits worth £4-6bn to the UK economy over 25 years.

Ofcom believes that the upgrade could be complete in time for digital switchover in the Granada television region, which is due to take place in late 2009 / early 2010. The new services would then be available as switchover is rolled out across the rest of the UK, completing with four HD services being available by 2012.

The upgrade process

New technology

Recent advances in broadcasting technologies and standards make the upgrade possible. This includes:

  1. Switchover capacity: Digital television switchover will allow a change in technical broadcast standards which will increase the capacity of DTT by around 20 per cent. This is called mode change.
  2. Efficiency improvements: Requiring broadcasters to make the most efficient use of current broadcast standards.
  3. Coding: This is a technology that turns pictures and sound into material that can be broadcast digitally. The latest coding standard, called MPEG4, is expected to be up to twice as efficient as the current MPEG2 standard.
  4. Transmission: A new European transmission standard, called DVB-T2, will increase capacity by at least 30 per cent.

Taken together, these advances in technology could in time more than double the capacity of DTT to enable extra television channels, including those using high definition technologies.

Multiplex reorganisation

Terrestrial television is broadcast on six multiplexes. These are distinct blocks of transmission capacity which carry television channels. Ofcom proposes to clear one of the three multiplexes used for Public Service Broadcasting (Multiplex B, licensed by Ofcom to BBC Free to View Ltd). The existing channels on this multiplex would be relocated to use the spare capacity on the other multiplexes. Once this is complete, Multiplex B would be upgraded to use new technologies and standards.

Consumer choice

The DTT upgrade would bring more choice to consumers.

Viewers who wanted to access the new services on offer would need to buy a new DTT set-top box or integrated television, which was compatible with MPEG4 and DVB-T2.

However, viewers with existing DTT set-top boxes or integrated televisions would still be able to access Freeview services with their current equipment.

Delivering new services

As this capacity has been designated for public service broadcasting, Ofcom proposes to invite organisations with Public Service Broadcaster status – principally the BBC, the Channel 3, 4 and 5 licensees and S4C – to set out how they would use the upgraded capacity on Multiplex B.

Throughout this process, Ofcom’s responsibility will be to further the interests of citizens and consumers and we welcome the contributions of all those with an interest in the future of broadcasting in the UK.

Proposals would be judged on three main criteria: efficiency of spectrum use; contribution to public service broadcasting; and contribution to the range and diversity of television services available on DTT.

Joint powers

In developing these proposals Ofcom has worked closely with the Department for Culture Media and Sport. This is because some of the powers to upgrade DTT fall within Ofcom’s remit and others with the Government’s.

Once Ofcom has judged the proposals, it expects to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport. At some point the Secretary of State would make Orders to reserve capacity for the successful organisations.

Ed Richards, Chief Executive of Ofcom, said: “Digital Terrestrial Television is a big success story; it is in nearly 13 million homes and it contributes to the choice and diversity of British television.

“Our proposals to upgrade Digital Terrestrial Television represent a major opportunity to build on its success with wider, richer and more varied television services, including the potential for HDTV to be made available to millions of people free to air. We look forward to hearing the views of viewers and from right across the industry.”