Britain's communications watchdog has warned broadcasters they have no God-given right to reoccupy the analogue TV spectrum that they began vacating this week.
Delivering the Ofcom annual lecture on Tuesday evening, the regulator's chief executive Ed Richards said he was not persuaded that TV should be allowed to use the "digital dividend" for high-definition programming. Instead, he spoke of the "golden opportunity" of using more efficient MPEG4 compression and the DVBT2 broadcast standard to squeeze HD channels into the existing Freeview band.
Ofcom is consulting on that plan at the moment. Richards said it could deliver HD shows to Freeview households as soon as the end of 2009, compared to no sooner than 2012 if the regulator waits for the completion of the analogue TV switch-off.
Richards' views could lead to a clash with the BBC, which favours delivering HD over the internet. The Beeb's technology chief Ashley Highfield told BBC news on Tuesday: "With spectrum capacity severely limited on Freeview at least until 2012, we believe quite strongly that internet protocol is a great route to getting HD out to wider audience."
Ofcom has already raised doubts about such plans, questioning their value to the public.
Under the regulator's preferred method, consumers would need new kit to take advantage of HD channels, although the current generation of set-top boxes would continue to work for standard broadcasts. Ofcom is consulting with the understanding that terrestrial HD would be free-to-air.
Sky looks set to be the first to market with MPEG4 broadcasts, via its Picnic venture. It wants to use the extra capacity to broadcast more standard-definition pay-TV channels, however.
Ofcom is also consulting on freeing up the 900MHz band currently occupied by Vodafone and O2. In a speech that mainly focused on consumer protection, Richards did hint that there was scope for a more market-led approach to spectrum allocation.
It suggests future carve-ups will be more technologically neutral than the 3G auction, for example. ®