The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 will each offer a Freeview high-definition channel over an upgraded terrestrial TV platform by the end of 2009, broadcasting regulators said today.
Viewers who want to watch the new services will have to buy a new set-top box compatible with the as-yet incomplete DVB-T2 standard, and with MPEG-4. The transmission and encoding upgrades will allow broadcasters to squeeze higher bitrates into the same Freeview spectrum.
The BBC Trust is yet to decide what service to offer over Freeview HD, but the Corporation already broadcasts a mixed bag of its biggest shows in high definition over Sky, Freesat and Virgin Media.
ITV will simulcast evening ITV1 on its Freeview HD service and sub-let the channel to others outside prime time. It also plans to offer coverage of major sporting events. Channel 4 will also simulcast its normal programming in HD, particularly films and documentaries. Ofcom said would a fourth possible Freeview HD channel would launch in 2010.
The switch on will be staggered by region. Granada viewers will be first to get Freeview HD next year, followed by Scotland, Wales and the West Country in 2010. Central, Yorkshire, Anglia and Meridian transmitters will offer high definition in 2011, missing out on the 2010 football World Cup*, while London, Tyne Tees and Ulster will have to wait until 2012.
Ofcom said discussions with manufacturers indicated new set-top boxes will be on the market in time for the Granada launch. Earlier this year a broadcast industry group criticised regulators for putting too much faith in unproven technology. ®
*Following publication of this story Ofcom got in touch to say it will shortly make an announcement on using spare spectrum as a potential way for viewers in non-upgraded regions to watch the 2010 World Cup in HD.