Freeview digital terrestrial television in the United Kingdom will have high definition channels in the future, but they may not be in 1080p Full HD. The communications regulator Ofcom is proposing a profile that will not support the highest resolution progressively scanned format.

Most high-definition broadcasts in Europe are in 1080i interlaced format and few if any broadcasts are currently in the 1080p progressively scanned format that is currently confined to media such as Blu-Ray discs. However, many producers and broadcasters are looking to use 1080p as a production format.

Ofcom, the communications regulator in the United Kingdom, is set to propose MPEG-4 AVC level 4.0 for the forthcoming high definition digital terrestrial television service, based on the new and more efficient DVB-T2 transmission standard.

It means that 1080p will not be supported, at least at launch. That may not seem particularly relevant, as broadcasters are not necessarily ready to transmit in that format and compatible receivers may not be available.

Ofcom wrote to stakeholders earlier in the year as a part of a customary consultation exercise and based on feedback was persuaded that adopting a higher level specification that would support Full HD could delay the rollout of the service.

Apparently, if AVC level 4.2 were to be adopted “manufacturers reported that they would then feel compelled to bring only 1080p50-compatbile products to market,” Ofcom concluded. “This would have the effect of delaying availability of DVB-T2 / MPEG-4 products by at least one year, possibly more, and would probably result in a material cost uplift”.

In other words, they were persuaded that receivers might not be ready in time and might be more expensive

“We now feel that while the setting of an AVC level of 4.2 at this point is desirable, its adoption would also represent a significant risk to the early launch of the DVB-T2 platform,” Ofcom pronounced.

What is interesting here is the role of the communications regulator in setting technical standards. Ofcom was not responsible when Freeview was established following the collapse of the ITV Digital platform. Since then, however, the regulator has taken an increasing interest in technical specifications.

It might be considered that such matters should best be left for licence holding broadcasters to agree among themselves through existing cross-industry consortia, in close consultation with consumer electronics companies.

Alternatively, a more directive approach may be appropriate in order to provide a clear vision and roadmap for future technical developments.

The problem with broadcast standards is that once set, it is difficult to upgrade them without leaving a legacy of incompatible receivers. So it may not be an issue today, but it could be a problem in the future.

We have seen this already, when consumers were sold “HD Ready” displays, only to find out that they were not “Full HD” and could not display a true high definition picture. Now they can buy Full HD displays but there are no Full HD broadcasts.