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| NEWS | Ofcom bids to protect Freeview Frequencies

The UK is set to campaign to protect the frequencies currently used for digital terrestrial television at this year’s World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC).  The Conference, taking place this November and December in Dubai, will make internationally binding decisions on how frequencies used for telecommunications can be used. Mobile network operators are campaigning for another tranche of spectrum to be made available for mobile services.

Currently, Freeview frequencies are only safe until 2030, although the UK government has authorised the extension of broadcasting licences until 2035. These do however have a break clause that can be triggered from 2030, in the event the UK fails to secure ongoing use of broadcast spectrum for terrestrial TV services.

Meanwhile, regulator Ofcom has confirmed it will be leading the UK delegation to the conference, which will make decisions that will affect future spectrum for Freeview services beyond 2030. Ofcom also hopes to influence discussions about rules for non-geostationary orbit satellite interference and how the upper 6GHz frequency band can be used to support wireless broadband growth.

Broadcast network operators across Europe have united to campaign for a Europe-wide retention of frequencies for TV and Programme Making & Special Events equipment. In recognition that the way we view TV is changing, groups are also pushing the adoption of new technologies for terrestrial broadcasting, including the adoption of 5G Broadcast and DVB-I. These would create hybrid broadcast networks, using the current transmitter networks to reach all types of device with a blend of live and on-demand TV. Changes to the way terrestrial TV is broadcast would also facilitate UHD broadcasts.

Mobile network operators, having successfully taken two chunks of spectrum previously assigned to terrestrial TV (700 and 800 MHz; mobile bands 28 and 20), are arguing they need more low-band frequencies in the future. 

How the WRC-23 outcome could affect the UK

  • Previous acquisitions of TV frequencies resulted in multiple retunes for Freeview viewers and a reduction in the amount of Freeview capacity available for HD channels in the UK. 
  • Any future reductions would severely limit terrestrial TV, forcing users to switch to broadband internet-delivered TV services.
  • However, in a year that has brought price rises of over 14%, plus limited coverage of full fibre, there’s concerns about the cost and coverage of internet networks to provide truly universal coverage.
  • The BBC has signalled it wants to transition to online broadcasting. The broadcaster also subsequently noted the UK isn’t ready for such a transition at this stage. 
  • Therefore, there’s a growing sentiment that if the UK is successful in retaining Freeview frequencies at WRC-23, it will only be temporary until the next World Radiocommunications Conference in 2027. 
  • Effectively, it would give the UK and other countries another 4-5 years to devise detailed plans for an online transition – either by creating low-cost universal IPTV services or with the use of 5G Broadcast to maintain a form of terrestrial broadcasting.
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