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Freeview lobby cries foul on Ofcom HDTV plans

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A group of broadcasting industry firms has criticised Ofcom's plans for high definition TV on the Freeview platform, warning they are built to fail and risk undermining the future of terrestrial TV.

Ofcom has proposed that when the analogue switch-off completes in 2012, the spectrum should be sold off for new uses. It favours a plan that would see HDTV channels squeezed into the existing Freeview bandwidth using superior MPEG4 compression technology and the as-yet-incomplete DVB-T2 broadcasting standard. It would mean consumers buying new receiver equipment.

According to the Digital Television Group, a consortium that includes all the main broadcasters and several manufacturers, the plans "could seriously compromise Digital Terrestrial Television's long term viability". It reckons Ofcom is putting too much early faith in DVB-T2, for example. "These 'forward-looking' assumptions about timing, technology and transition are still to be convincingly demonstrated in practical systems", it said in a statement.

A public consultation on the Ofcom blueprint, which would aim to provide space for three or four HDTV channels, closed last week. A regulatory ruling will follow soon.

Ahead of the final decision, DTG has claimed the scheme is headed for the same scrapheap as ONdigital, BSB and BT Movio. These services were all hamstrung by their relatively low number of channels, the lobby said, and Ofcom could similarly doom Freeview HD by skimping on bandwidth in the face of dozens of HD channels that could be carried by Sky, Virgin Media and future IPTV services.

The DTG insists that spectrum should be available for at least the five main terrestrial channels to broadcast simultaneously in high definition, to avoid establishing an underclass of HD have-nots among commercial channels. The demand for multi-channel terrestrial HD from consumers is established, said DTG's director general Dermot Nolan. "Flat panel sales are huge now. Terrestrial broadcasting needs to offer HD to compete [with satellite and cable]," he said.

The blueprint proposes that channels be rejigged on the current Freeview broadcast system to allow transmitting hardware to be upgraded for DVB-T2. Nolan said that DTG was "not averse to a reorganisation", but he warned that the reach of standard definition channels could be hit in remote areas by shifting channels off their current signal. "That... is at odds with the implied Universal Service Obligation of Public Service Broadcasters," DTG said.

There are six signal multiplexes in use for Freeview. Ofcom wants to clear the decks on multiplex B, which is operated by the BBC and carries BBC Four, BBC Parliament, interactive and radio services in preparation for HD Freeview rollout beginning in 2009. It would mean massive contractual headaches for DTG's members.

The group called for regulators to develop a coherent national strategy on HDTV across all broadcasting platforms. ®

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