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London Olympics drives dash for terrestrial HDTV

Digital telly group sounds warning against rush job

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The boss of an influential television industry group has cautioned Ofcom and the BBC against rushing the rollout of high definition terrestrial TV, fearing technical blunders.

Dermot Nolan, director general of the Digital TV Group (DTG), cautiously welcomed an announcement by the pair last week that they will proceed with plans to rejig how the current channel is distributed across Freeview spectrum next year. However, he believes the tight deadline they have set could prove a pitfall.

It's known within the industry that the BBC's desire to show the 2010 World Cup in HD on terrestrial TV, and especially the 2012 Olympics, has concentrated minds at Ofcom on how to get HDTV into terrestrial homes as quickly as possible. The communications watchdog seems keenly aware of what's at stake. Chief executive Ed Richards called the plans "a once in a lifetime opportunity".

Worries DTG voiced in February over how the process will be handled have been calmed by tweaks to the process, which was finalised by Ofcom last week following a five-month consultation.

Nolan said: "It's clear that they [Ofcom] have listened to the industry."

The plan is for the BBC to vacate multiplex B so that equipment can be upgraded to handle the upcoming DVB-T2 broadcast standard, which will require Department for Culture, Media and Sport approval.

Nolan said everyone involved in the upgrade should be wary that DVB-T2 isn't even a standard on paper yet. "These things always take a lot longer than people think, especially when it comes to a new technology like this," he said. "I don't think it's likely HD will be on air before 2010 or 2011."

Still, Ofcom and the BBC want are determined to complete the major reshuffle inside 2009. The BBC Trust, the corporation's governing body, will oversee the exit from multiplex B.

"It took from 1995 to 1998 for the DVB-T standard to be finalised and we've had errors before," Nolan said. "The first generation of Freeview set-top boxes didn't work very well at all."

It's expected that each of the four public service broadcasters (the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Five) will be allocated one of the four HD channels that DVB-T2 broadcasts compressed using MPEG-4 will squeeze in. It's hoped the launch of HD will not disrupt the ongoing switch-off of analogue transmitters or standard definition Freeview broadcasts.

The scheme means terrestrial viewers who want to see the Olympics in HD will have to buy new equipment, but Nolan believes there will be little resistance to another consumer technology investment. DTG is hoping a cheap CI slot module will allow them to receive DVB-T2. "People are used to buying new boxes now," he said.

DTG argues that the four channel plan should only serve as a stop-gap before a full scale terrestrial HD deployment. It says more spectrum will be needed if Freeview is to continue to compete with the multiplicity of HD services on offer from satellite and cable. The digital TV industry's past is littered with the corpses of services that had a low number of channels and were rejected by consumers, such as ONDigital and BSB. ®

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