Will Freeview be able to provide High Definition TV to the public?

Wednesday was budget day. Thankfully lunch was not taxed, but one little-noticed item could cause serious debate amongst technology types.

Digital TV delivered by the FreeView system makes use of a portion of the radio spectrum. With the switchover from analogue to digital TV there is an opportunity to re-jig the way the radio spectrum is used and, in the process, release some spare capacity. This spare spectrum is known in technology circles as the ‘digital dividend’.

So why is this important? Well, buried on page 151 of the Budget Report, the Government notes that, through its agency Ofcom, it is consulting on a proposal that the “spectrum released by switchover should be auctioned on an open basis during 2008-9”.

Herein lies the rub. Note the word ‘open’ in the Budget report. The Government is suggesting that this ‘digital dividend’ could be auctioned off in a process similar to the radio spectrum auction that took place a few years ago, when the Government made billions auctioning spectrum to phone companies for 3G mobile phone capacity. Yet it is this ‘spare’ capacity that is partly needed if Freeview is going to be able to deliver High Definition TV as a free-to-view service.

Such an auction might end up with prices that no public sector broadcaster could compete with and therefore effectively freeze out Freeview from the next generation of spectrum capacity. This could be a problem for the millions of people, who, anticipating the great switchover, have invested in a nice, shiny, new HD-ready TV. If an open sell-off happens, there’s a good chance that they won’t be able to get HD TV pictures over free-to-view services.

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