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OfCom Report Offers Freeview Ultimatum to Government

May 2024, the beginning of the end for Terrestrial Freeview.

We have seen since last October that "Freely", an online-only Freeview variant which unfortunately launched last week with a very limited EPG, is being set-up to be the "future" of Live TV. While needing an internet connection, content on Freely still follows a Live broadcast schedule just like current DTT (Digital Terrestrial TV). This is meant to keep the "spirit of Freeview" alive despite the change in delivery method.

However, a recent report from Ofcom which was instigated a couple of years ago to examine the future of DTT has identified there's only really 2 ways to keep traditional Freeview going in the UK.

This makes the shortcomings of Freely all the more dangerous, as we may be converted over to it as DTT Freeview is slowly shut down.

The May 2024 Ofcom Report - Overview

First, it's prudent to summarise the report, before examining its knock-on effects for us as viewers.

One thing the report does not hold back on is establishing the decline of DTT as a platform. Right off the bat we are told that 25% fewer people watch Live TV through an Aerial now than in 2018, as people switch to IPTV services and streaming platforms such as Netflix or Disney+.

Ofcom predict, based on that data and the rate of subscriptions to online services, that the trend will cause "Digital Terrestrial Television and satellite forecast to drop from 67% of total long-form TV viewing in 2022, to 35% by 2034 and 27% by 2040."

This prediction gives Freeview a presence until as late as 2040, which conflicts with a shut-off to line up with the governments obligation to keep Freeview services Live until 2034.

This could imply that a quick turnaround to Online TV in 2034 is off the cards, and gives the country a longer-term switch-over plan.

However, the current conversion speed from DTT to alternative services is "natural", i.e the Government and TV broadcasters aren't actively enforcing a swich. If efforts are made to actively switch people off of DTT then that timeline becomes much shorter than 2040.

The May 2024 Ofcom Report - Why is Freeview Failing?

With hundreds of channels and no apparent sign to the average viewer that Freeview is failing, why is there so much tension and unease around DTT Freeview's future?

The logic is laid out by Ofcom, who consider the financial investments of various channel owners.

Ofcom claim that as viewers move away from Freeview, it becomes more taxing on the remaining companies to fund and support the DTT network. This is because the upkeep costs remain the same, but viewer count is lower, resulting in a higher cost-per-viewer.

Smaller broadcasters can't carry the load, and the larger companies will stop finding the network financially viable if they are forced to take that extra cost.

This creates a domino effect, where a small drop in viewers leads to a sudden exodus of all the broadcasting companies.

The May 2024 Ofcom Report - The Ultimatum

This data-driven prediction followed by domino-effect theory leads Ofcom to present a few options, the only ways for the government to continue Live TV broadcasts in a cost-effective way.

The methods directly address the issues above, and boil down to the following:

1. Lower the cost of operating Freeview DTT

If Freeview DTT costs are lowered, the strain from losing viewers will not fall so heavily on the broadcasting companies.

One way of reducing these costs is to make DTT a "Core Service" of just a few channels, similar in scope to what Freely is right now. This would provide a backup for internet-less homes and times when the net is down, but would still remove over 100 Freeview DTT channels.

The only other way, without limiting Freeview to a "core service", to lower costs is to make the current DTT network more efficient. This could be achieved through upgrading relay and broadcast towers to remove any superfluous ones, lowering operating costs without lowering coverage.

This sort of overhaul would, of course, incur a large initial cost for construction and destruction of towers. Essentially, the cost is shifted but not removed.

The Pros -

- Freeview access remains up for terrestrial Aerial viewers

- Online TV remains an option, not a requirement

- No defined moment of switch-over, so no rush to change and lose content

The Cons -

- Running Freeview as a "Core Service" could be death in all but name

- Huge initial cost of upgrading towers / relays will put the government off

2. Phase-Out Freeview Altogether

Instead of clinging to the DTT network and investing in new towers, the other option is to pour that investment into Online TV access. For example, access to strong broadband is still 30% behind access to strong DTT signal. This gap could be slowly filled by providing standardised internet or enforcing ISP's (Internet Service Providers) with a minimum coverage / speed standard.

Once these standards are met, and the nation has 95%+ access to stable broadband, then DTT transmissions can be fully replaced, removing all upkeep.

The Pros -

- Encourages a minimum internet speed and coverage requirement for the nation

The Cons -

- Dependency on Internet for another part of life, with no contingency for it going down

- Decommission and removal of aerials, towers and relays still incurs a large single cost, just after-the-fact rather than before

The Future of Freeview

It has been a busy year for Freeview news, and the future is looking uncertain. While it's clear that Everyone TV, the UK Government and Ofcom are poised to make an Online-TV switchover, the actual timeline and funding for such a project throws it all into uncertainty.

The UK is still guaranteed to support DTT Freeview until 2034, but combine that obligation with Ofcom's Ultimatum of "Make Freeview efficient, or remove it" and we can begin to envision a world where DTT services are removed in the next two decades, or sooner.

I am cautiously optimistic that, at the very least, this could encourage more policy on the minimal internet speed and coverage for UK ISPs. Better internet for everyone is never a bad thing, I just wish we could have both, you know?

Until the next Freeview bombshell, have a great start to summer!

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