Public service broadcasters in the United Kingdom have launched a campaign in conjunction with manufacturers and retailers to lobby for the availability of high-definition channels on digital terrestrial television.
The HDforAll campaign for high-definition TV on Freeview is being backed by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, together with consumer electronics companies such as Sony, Samsung and Toshiba, and major retailers Comet and Dixons.
The consortium is lobbying the communications regulator Ofcom to set aside spectrum released by the switchover to digital television to provide free-to-air high-definition television broadcasts.
It follows a report from Ofcom that suggested that there is little demand for high-definition services on the digital terrestrial television platform which is marketed as Freeview.
Ofcom believes that the use of released spectrum should be decided by the market through an auction process. The communications regulator also argues that existing spectrum could be used to carry high-definition channels, if broadcasters re-allocated capacity from some of the supplementary services that they have launched on the digital platform.
The public service broadcasters are essentially pleading a special case, claiming that there is no obvious way that they could recoup the cost of transmitting television channels in high definition. They say that failure to facilitate the spectrum for high-definition television risks undermining the Freeview platform and that substantially reducing the choice of channels to provide high-definition television would weaken the proposition.
Freeview continues to grow, with some two million set-top boxes and compatible digital televisions sold over the Christmas period.
The industry has prepared many consumers for digital television, notably with the promotion of “HDReady” sets, the majority of which do not actually support full high-definition resolution. Nevertheless, there is considerable consumer appetite for large, wide, flat screens, which tend to reveal the degree to which broadcasters are over-compressing their digital signals to make room for additional channels.
A limited technical trial of high-definition digital terrestrial television in the London area suggested that 85% of users believed its availability was “very important”. The BBC has committed to making all its programmes in high-definition by the end of the decade.
Sky, which is a shareholder in Freeview, provides a number of high-definition channels on its satellite television platform, although these are currently only available to the 183,000 homes that have opted for the additional service since it launched in May 2006.
Limited high-definition services are also available to some cable subscribers. In the future, high-definition television may also be available over broadband, at least to those in urban areas.
One way or another, high-definition television broadcasts will have to compete for capacity with other services, such as mobile communications, that can only be delivered over the airwaves.