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Ofcom timescale threatens HD over DTT

23 February 2006

Large swathes of west and northern UK will be prevented from receiving HDTV via digital terrestrial television (DTT) unless communications regulator Ofcom’s timetable for re-allocating spectrum after the digital switchover (DSO) is speeded up, warned UK transmission tower owner and operator Arqiva (formerly ntl:broadcast) at a recent conference, writes Richard Dean.

Speaking at the third HDTV Summit held at London’s British Academy for the Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), Terrestrial Media Solutions Managing Director Steve Holebrook at Arqiva – which owns and operates approximately half of the UK’s transmission towers – noted that Ofcom’s Digital Dividend Review published last November proposes that spectrum decisions be made in Spring 2007, with licences awarded towards the end of the year.

But this will come too late for the west country and northwest England plus the whole of Wales and Scotland, said Holebrook, where custom-made equipment will already have been specified for the initial DSO phase. In total some 1,154 transmitter sites will have to be modified nationwide, starting in more rural areas from 2008 and reaching London in 2012, finishing with the Channel Islands in early 2013.

Ofcom estimates that the number of UK homes using DTT as their main platform will be roughly equal to those on satellite-delivered pay-TV by 2012, following the spectacular success of Freeview. This is the fast-growing digital terrestrial platform now at full capacity with 30 TV channels and 20 radio services covered by the existing licence fee – plus 12 pay-TV channels for those with a Top up TV smartcard reader – received via a set top box costing as little as 60 Euros.

"It is inconceivable that DTT will not support HD in the future," said Holebrook. "How can 50 per cent of the population be denied coverage of the London Olympics in HD?" The completion of DSO will see Freeview availability jumping from today’s 75 per cent to some 98.5 per cent of the UK population, with an additional 14 UHF channels becoming free for new services across six multiplexes. Further channels, including one for mobile TV, could be obtained with two additional multiplexes.

While acknowledging that the UK Treasury will want to sell some of the new spectrum to non-broadcast customers, Holebrook urged that decisions about future TV needs must be made now. "The successful introduction of HD on DTT requires urgent planning and decisions to made quickly by Ofcom on re-use of spectrum, so that the specification can be incorporated in all the new transmission equipment from day one," Holebrook concluded.

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