HDTV for some?

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Broadcasters and manufacturers have reached a deadlock with the Government over their demands for radio spectrum to be set aside for high-definition television services on Freeview.

The BBC, ITV, Channel 4, DSG International and Sony have put pressure on the Government to safeguard part of the UHF spectrum needed for such services when it auctions it off next year.

The organisations, part of a lobby group formed in February called HDforAll, say that without such provision broadcasters will be outbid by telecoms companies for the space, creating a two-tier television landscape.

The Government has denied that such an auction is all about raising money for the spectrum and says it agrees with media regulator Ofcom’s stance that a market-led approach is the most neutral basis on which to release spectrum. It further suggests that such free HD services may not be what consumers actually want most. A digital dividend consultation is under way and closes next week.

Post-switchover competition
After digital switchover in 2012, some of the spectrum will be cleared for uses other than digital TV. The so-called "digital dividend" is expected to be auctioned during the last quarter of 2008. Freeview needs a share of the spectrum if it wants to compete with Sky, Virgin Media and other platforms offering HD services, says HDforAll.

David Patton, senior vice-president of marketing communications for Sony Europe, has called on the TV industry and Ofcom to "sort out" HDTV, saying the UK is at risk of being left behind (MW March 1).

Broadcasters went further at industry body Digital Television Group’s annual meeting last week. BBC director of marketing, communications and audiences Tim Davie told members: "We have never allowed a two-tier system to develop before and we must not let it happen now." He added that there would be "recriminations" if the British public, who are helping to pay for the 2012 Olympics, were not able to watch the games in HD on Freeview, when people in other countries would be able to do so.

The DTG believes the issue is so important that it should be down to elected representatives, rather than Ofcom, to make a decision. Richard Lindsay-Davies, director general of the DTG, adds. "There is no question that HD is the global standard. [Without spectrum] one of our key television platforms will be forced behind the game or lost forever."

Is Ofcom up to the job?
However, an e-petition posted on the Prime Minister’s website with almost 5,000 signatures was knocked back by the Government, which instead urged those supporting HD services on Freeview to enter Ofcom’s consultation instead. An early day motion backing the cause gained 55 MP supporters, but was also rebuffed.

Some industry commentators say both Ofcom and the government are right to knock back broadcasters’ demands. One analyst says it is "impossible to second-guess" what consumers most want and need in the freed-up space. He says that HD subscription services are available on BSkyB and cable already, and would be "free" should a mooted FreeSat operation backed by the BBC and ITV materialise.

Furthermore, argues another industry insider, linear channels will become "less significant" in favour of on-demand offerings and other mooted services such as broadcast mobile TV. Mobile phone giants have already expressed their commitment to offering TV services over broadcast. Other uses for the freed-up spectrum could include mobile broadband wireless services, advanced mobile services or wireless cameras for outside broadcasts and temporary or portable video links. Each will be arguing their cause. For now, Ofcom looks unlikely to bow to any such pressures.

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