High-definition television channels will be made widely available across the Freeview platform in time for the 2012 London Olympics after Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, agreed to free up spectrum on the free-to-air digital TV platform to support the launch of up to five channels over the coming years.
Ofcom said the new proposals will utilise existing radio spectrum on the Freeview platform to launch HD stations by 2009. It is anticipated that there will be four HD channels available on Freeview by the time of the London Olympics and a further channel by 2015. Ofcom said the upgrade to the successful free-to-air digital platform could benefit the UK economy by up to £6bn over the next 25 years.
HD channels have already been launched on the Sky and Virgin Media TV platforms but free-to-air broadcasters have been at loggerheads with the telecoms and media regulator Ofcom over the past year about the best way to launch the channels on the Freeview platform. While Ofcom has consistently argued that broadcasters could launch HD using their existing allocation of spectrum, the likes of ITV and the BBC have pressured the regulator to hand over more valuable spectrum for HD.
Ofcom is auctioning off a large chunk of spectrum that has been freed up by the digital switchover, which is due to complete in 2012. The frequencies used for analogue TV are some of the most valuable slices of spectrum available and broadcasters have argued that if the spectrum was auctioned off, they would not be able to compete against mobile phone companies and pay-TV operators to secure spectrum for HD services. Free-to-air broadcasters argued that this could create a "HD divide" whereby consumers would be forced to subscribe to pay-TV to get state-of-the-art channels.
However, the broadcasters have come around to Ofcom's argument and earlier this week, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 all agreed that HD channels could be launched using their existing spectrum allocation.
Yet Ofcom has put paid to the idea that the major broadcasters will all automatically be entitled to launch services on the new HD Freeview channels, arguing that each broadcaster will need to submit competitive tenders setting out their plans. The beauty contest-style auction will judge the broadcaster's plans based on contribution to public service broadcasting, the efficiency of how the spectrum will be used and how the new channel will contribute to the range and diversity of channels on the Freeview platform. The regulator will publish its proposals in March next year, with a final decision about the structure of the new HD channels made in July.
Ofcom said the upgrade will benefit consumers but stressed that those TV viewers that are not interested in HD services will be able to use their existing Freeview set-top boxes. Only customers who want HD need to upgrade to support the new technology standards, Ofcom said. More than 14 million households already have Freeview set-top boxes.
Ed Richards, head of Ofcom, said: "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."