The problem: lack of universal service
Digital switchover involved moving users from one universal free-to-access service to another. There’s no such equivalent yet for an IP-switchover.
Of the relatively new online-only services from Sky, Virgin Media O2 and BT, all force viewers to use a specific receiving device and two of them force users on to the provider’s broadband service and router.
Once locked into using the devices, the providers are able to charge for any feature they like: Sky charges £5 to activate the fast forward button during adverts on on-demand content via Sky Glass/Sky Stream. Providers can also bind consumers into contracts with above inflation rises.
Some providers boldly advertise that their TV services are available on a rolling monthly basis – stop anytime, no commitment! They might not be so forthcoming about any linked services that are subject to a contract and the fact if you do cancel, your smarter than smart TV will go dumber than a dumb TV.
Freeview Play and Freesat’s connected TV boxes are a start, but the service is still pinned on reception via a TV aerial or satellite dish.
What solutions are there?
The answer to the IP-switchover conundrum could be DVB-I and 5G Broadcast – giving viewers free access to content regardless of their broadband supplier.
DVB-I support within TV receivers would allow viewers to access a channel list that can include a variety of sources during the inevitable transition period.
Say for example ITV decided to switch ITV 2 from terrestrial to IP. A TV with DVB-I support would automatically switch from accessing the terrestrial version of the channel to the IP version on the day of the transition. The viewer, providing of course they have an internet connection, would not notice any difference.
It could be done in a more subtle way in advance of any transition: the TV could opt for the SD ITV 2 signal from Freeview if there was no internet connection. Otherwise, it would be told to prefer the HD ITV 2 stream by default. You could end up with viewers migrating to internet TV without realising it.
BT has started something similar, but it is not an open format available on any receiver. Neither will it combine a mixture of both terrestrial and online. If you go to internet mode on BT’s Pro boxes you forfeit access to some terrestrial channels. If you opt for aerial mode, you don’t get access to extra HD channels that are only streamed.
Don’t confuse with HbbTV
Earlier this year Together, the former Community Channel, switched to online delivery of its main channel. This meant compatible TVs automatically switched to an online TV feed. Non-compatible TVs saw a caption.
This was done by an HbbTV application. For this to work, a compatible TV needs a terrestrial TV signal to receive the instructions from the HbbTV app when the channel is selected from the channel list.
In fact, most Freeview Play apps work on the same basis. No terrestrial reception, no access, even if you have a working internet connection. That’s why Freeview Play, in its current incarnation, wouldn’t be suitable for an IP-switchover.
DVB-I could do this without needing an underlying terrestrial TV signal. But you could still use HbbTV apps to provide viewers with additional data and red button services.
Incidentally, Together complained to Ofcom that it had received hundreds of complaints from viewers who had non-compatible devices. The channel has since secured regular broadcast capacity to allow it to continue broadcasting a terrestrial service. Together+1 currently still uses the HbbTV app to stream through the day.
What is 5G Broadcast?
5G Broadcast would operate in a Receive-Only Mode (ROM), be free-to-air and wouldn’t need a SIM card (SIM-free reception). It would use the current UHF frequencies used by terrestrial TV.
During a transition, it would be able to operate side-by-side on adjacent frequencies without interference – that was confirmed in Hamburg where 5G Broadcast was broadcast alongside current terrestrial TV multiplexes.
An opportunity to try this out in the UK could occur from 2026, if the BBC opted to end its licence for multiplex PSB3 (the HD multiplex). When asked by the DCMS, the BBC was the only multiplex licence holder not eager to renew its licence when it expires, as it wanted to see how things would develop.
The HD multiplex would not be needed if SD services were withdrawn: the HD channels could move over to take their space. The frequencies used by PSB3 could then be used to trial 5G Broadcast.
And Arqiva – who would otherwise end up with lots of redudant masts around the country – would see their masts and relays join together to create a 5G Broadcast network – a bit like a giant mesh network to carry the signal.
An opportunity to migrate viewers
Removing SD simulcasts of the main channels in 2026 would be an ideal way to get IP-compatible devices into viewer’s homes.
It would act as a prompt to get viewers with the oldest equipment up-to-date with developments.
Where viewers updated their TV but didn’t have online access, Freeview reception would continue as before, but with HD-only versions of the main five channels. As soon as the TV was connected to fibre or mobile or even 5G Broadcast, it would automatically choose the IP delivered versions over the terrestrial versions.
PICTURED: Brougher Mountain transmitters. COPYRIGHT: Nathan Dane.
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