High-definition services to be available free-to-air on UK DTT

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008 
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More choice and new services on digital terrestrial TV

Viewers across the UK will have the opportunity to access more television channels, including programmes broadcast in high-definition (HD), as a result of a major technology upgrade of digital terrestrial television (DTT) to be facilitated by Ofcom.

The changes mean that viewers using new receiving equipment should be able to receive up to four new high-definition channels as digital switchover is completed in the UK in 2012, with the first three available as switchover takes place in the Granada and subsequent regions from 2009.

The upgrade can take place without the loss of existing television services currently available to viewers on DTT.

The process will deliver major benefits for:

  • viewers, who will be able to access an array of new channels and services through their television aerials and new HD set top boxes;
  • broadcasters, who will be able to deliver a greater range of services while continuing to deliver the channels that are currently available on Freeview, using existing spectrum; and
  • the economy, by making better use of the valuable spectrum reserved for broadcasting.

Today’s statement follows a request from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to Ofcom for advice on how these technologies could best be adopted. Ofcom published a consultation on its proposals in November 2007 which received broad support from broadcasters.

In developing the proposals and throughout the consultation, Ofcom 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 within the Government’s. Ofcom is now seeking an Order under the Communications Act 2003 from Government which would amend the Broadcasting Act 1996 to facilitate the upgrade.

Upgrading DTT with the latest technology

New services can be accommodated on DTT as a result of four advances in technology:

  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. Compression: This is a technology that minimizes the data capacity required to transmit video and audio services that are broadcast digitally. The latest compression standard, called MPEG-4, is expected to be up to twice as efficient as the current MPEG-2 standard.
  4. Transmission: A new European transmission standard, called DVB-T2, will increase capacity by at least 30 per cent

Taken together, these advances will free-up capacity for new services and allow for the reorganisation of how services are broadcast on the multiplexes.

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 currently used for public service broadcasting (Multiplex B, licensed by Ofcom to BBC Free to View Ltd).

The existing channels on this multiplex will be relocated to use the spare capacity on the other multiplexes. Once this is complete, Multiplex B will be upgraded to use new technologies and standards.

New television services

The extra capacity on the reorganised multiplex will allow broadcasters to introduce new and innovative services, including high-definition channels.

To achieve this, one of the slots on the multiplex will remain for the BBC Trust to oversee. It is expected that this will be used to broadcast the BBC high definition channel. The other three slots will be awarded to commercial public service broadcasters (ITV, Channel 4, five, S4C) through a competitive bidding process to be run by Ofcom.

Applications for each individual slot will be judged on three main criteria: efficient use of the spectrum; contribution to public service broadcasting; and contribution to the range and diversity of television services in the UK.

Ofcom will set up a sub-committee of the main Ofcom Board to assess the applications and award capacity.

More choice for consumers

Upgrading the DTT platform will bring more choice for consumers. Existing Freeview viewers should continue to receive the wide range of services that are currently available on their existing equipment.

Viewers wishing to access the new services will need to buy equipment that is compatible with the new technologies, such as a new set-top-box.

Next steps

Ofcom is recommending that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport make the necessary changes to the Broadcasting Act to facilitate the necessary legal process required to allow Ofcom to implement these changes. Following this, the broadcasters will be invited to apply for the first two slots on Multiplex B.

A decision on the successful licensees will be taken later in the summer.

Ed Richards, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to upgrade digital terrestrial television. It offers benefits for broadcasters – who will be able to launch new services without using any new spectrum – and viewers – who will have access to new channels and services on free to air.”

More: Full Statement