Freeview will get bumped down the dial to make way for 5G networks around 2018, but in the meantime we'll get a bunch more HD TV and plenty of White Space to play in.
Ofcom has confirmed proposals, published in August, to shuffle Freeview down the dial and clear space at 700MHz for more next-next-generation wireless broadband services. But that's not going to happen for another five years, so in the meantime Freeview will be permitted to run a few extra multiplexes while the White Space crowd will get five more years to show what they can do.
The 600Mhz band is empty 'cos when the UK went digital it contracted the frequencies being used in both directions. That left a gap at the top - the 800MHz band to be auctioned off next year - and at the bottom - the 600MHz band no one wants. So unloved is 600MHz that in August Ofcom suggested shuffling Freeview down to release more space at the top for LTE services.
This would open up the 700MHz band, which is being used for 4G in the USA, notably supported by the New iPad, but is also being deployed in Africa and looks likely to spread elsewhere. But clearing it will mean retuning all the Freeview boxes, again, and replacing some roof-top aerials as the propagation characteristics change.
It will also have an impact on the work of DMSL, as Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited is tasked with spending £150m to mitigate against 4G signals (at 800MHz) interfering with Freeview (at 700MHz). Shuffle Freeview away and that problem disappears only to be replaced by the same thing only further down the dial, which might hit the same people, but equally might not.
UK terrestrial broadcasting is almost entirely handled by Arqiva, which was quick to comment on the proposals:
"While Arqiva welcomes Ofcom’s clear long-term commitment to ensuring a robust future for Freeview, Ofcom has yet to make the case for this change and the huge disruption that would be caused to TV viewers as a result."
Ofcom's justification is the oft-touted increase in demand for data, which is predicted to ramp up by 80 times before 2030. The problem with those predictions is that they're based on the "if current trends continue" model, the same one which says that by 2019 one in three of us will be working as an Elvis impersonator, but in reality the appetite for inferior renditions of The King tops out just like the demand for bandwidth will.
But Ofcom won't be swayed, so the question becomes what to do with the 600MHz band in the meantime. Back in August we suggested it should be thrown over to the White Space crowd to play with, on the grounds they they're a burgeoning industry in which the UK is a leader, and the database approach means they can move out at very short notice. Somewhat to our surprise Ofcom considered that, but decided to also stick a couple of national multiplexes in too so we can have some more Freeview channels even if they'll have to be switched off come 2018.
Ofcom's proposals (PDF, quite interesting but very long) aren't fixed yet, and there will need to be more details provided, but it's looking like we'll have another spectrum auction within a decade, and that terrestrial TV will again be shoved aside to make room for it. ®