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Ofcom: Fancy running a temporary HD Freeview TV channel?

10 of 'em up for grabs, but they'll only live for 6 years

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Ofcom wants 10 new channels on Freeview, all in HD, and is asking if anyone fancies running them, but only until 2019 when the needs of mobile telephony will cause the plug to be pulled.

Anyone interested will have to let the regulator know by 4 April, but assuming there's only one expression of interest then they'll get free rein to broadcast two digital multiplexes full of HD goodness using DVB-T2 and MPEG4, so they'll be capable of being picked up by the better Freeview boxes if not the bargain-bin variety. The lucky winner will have to pay a token one-off licence fee (£180,000) and cough up a good deal more to get Arqiva to broadcast the channels, but for six years they'll have an operation rivalling the existing portfolio of Freeview channels, and then they'll have to switch it all off.

The proposals are pretty much as outlined back in November, but with more detail and a form to be filled in by anyone interested in running the stations. The two multiplexes (five channels each) will sit in the band 550-606MHz, which is empty thanks to the contraction of analogue TV into the digital realm. Digital TV takes up less space than the analogue broadcasts it replaces, so the TV band contracted in both directions - leaving gaps at top and bottom. The top gap, at 800MHz, is currently being auctioned off for 4G telephony, but this gap at the bottom sits unloved and unwanted.

Many countries, notably the United States, contracted their analogue bands only downwards, leaving twice as big a gap at the top. With the benefit of hindsight that's what Ofcom should have done, but it didn't, so now the regulator wants to make amends by shuffling the Freeview block down the dial to free up space at the top which can be auctioned off to the mobile network operators.

But that won't happen until 2019, meanwhile that 600MHz block sits almost empty, which is why Ofcom is looking to get some HD channels in there. White Space users will be free to explore the space too, along with the Programme Making & Special Effects (PMSE) crowd who are already using it for wireless microphones and the like. If no-one takes an interest in this opportunity then those parties will be well pleased, but with no restrictions on what can be broadcast the multiplexes will probably attract some attention. Freeview is already being expanded with Local TV services kicking off in 19 cities later this year, obliged to provide local news and forbidden from straying into pornography or home shopping. Each of those will be accompanied by two other (SD) channels, which won't have the same restrictions but could end up competing with the ten new (HD) channels available nationally if anyone takes an interest.

If the consultation (PDF, just read the summary) attracts more than one expression of interest then Ofcom will default to an auction, but the best outcome is probably no interest from anyone - so we can fill those airwaves with White Space networking, providing huge amounts of free connectivity for just long enough for us to become dependent on it. ®

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