Decisions shaping the future of Freeview

Jon Steel, Communications Director, Digital UK

Decisions shaping the future of Freeview

by Jon Steel, Communications Director, Digital UK

posted on June 9th, 2015

The World Radiocommunication Conference takes place in Geneva in November 2015. This global event, which takes place every three or four years, is devoted to agreeing the rules on how airwaves are used to deliver all kinds of services from television to time-keeping.

This year’s gathering is crucial to the future of Freeview, which is used in three-quarters of UK homes. First, delegates will rubber stamp an agreement made at the 2012 conference which will require Freeview to give up around a third of its airwaves to meet predicted demand for mobile broadband services. Secondly, it will also decide whether to earmark the remaining television spectrum for mobile services in the longer run.

Giving up airwaves will have a big impact on Freeview and its viewers. Squeezing more than 100 TV and radio channels into significantly fewer frequencies poses technical challenges and could affect coverage in some areas. When the changes are implemented some time around 2020, Freeview viewers will have to retune their equipment and, according to Ofcom estimates, up to 100,000 households may require new aerials. In its March 2015 Budget, the government set aside up to £600 million to pay for the technical work and consumer support.

There is less certainty around the longer term future for the remaining TV airwaves. The WRC could decide to change the designation of these frequencies from primarily for broadcasting to ‘co-primary’, allowing them to be used for either television or mobile services.

Those in favour of making this change make the case for ‘flexibility’ and highlighted the economic returns associated with mobile sector. These arguments ignore the risk that such a move could signal the beginning of the end of terrestrial broadcasting and undermine the case for investment at precisely the time when innovation in HD and connected services like Freeview Play are needed.

It also assumes the predictions of continuing exponential growth in demand for mobile data are accurate, despite enormous variations in the figures produced.  Detailed analysis of the ITU modelling used to inform WRC decisions has found that some of the inputs appear hugely inflated – in some cases by up to 500 times what might be expected.

Ofcom, which represents the UK at the WRC, has said it plans to oppose moves towards opening up all television airwaves to mobile services. Such a position is consistent with its view expressed last year in a paper on the future of free to view TV that Freeview remains the ‘cornerstone’ of UK broadcasting.

At the European level, a similar view has been reached with the Commission’s advisory group recommending safeguarding television airwaves ‘even beyond 2030’. Many European member states have indicated their support for this position and met again last week to seek consensus. However, in other parts of the world, notably America, there is an appetite for weakening television’s rights to spectrum in favour of mobile technologies.

While Digital UK and our broadcaster partners have been vocal in making the case for spectrum policies to support a strong Freeview platform, this has not been a Canute-like attempt to deny the growing importance of mobile technologies and the potential for IP delivery of television. Rather it’s based on clear evidence that viewers remain overwhelmingly wedded to the new generation of bigger, smarter TVs as the best device for watching programmes, and that it will be many, many years before our broadband infrastructure can deliver a Freeview-like service to every home. On current trends, while OTT services like YouTube, Netflix and BBC iPlayer undoubtedly offer extra flexibility and choice, they are complementing rather than supplanting live broadcast TV. This is not just true of the UK but of most European states and many other countries around the world. When delegates gather in Geneva in five months’ time, and deals are done, let’s hope they don’t lose sight of that simple fact.

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