Tim Davie, the director general of the BBC, has signalled the need to “Move to an internet future with greater urgency”. He told the Royal Television Society to “Imagine a world that is internet only, where broadcast TV and radio are being switched off and choice is infinite.” The BBC has meanwhile argued for no change in international frequency allocations to give time for transition. Transmission network provider Arqiva is going further and lobbying the government directly to support free to air broadcasts for the foreseeable future.
“For the BBC, internet-only distribution is an opportunity to connect more deeply with our audiences and to provide them with better services and choice than broadcast allows,” the BBC executive said in his speech. “A switch off of broadcast will and should happen over time, and we should be active in planning for it.”
He suggested that “Over time this will mean fewer linear broadcast services and a more tailored joined up online offer.” He said: “We are working on how an IP BBC could be the best version of the BBC shaped around people’s interests and needs.”
The BBC is meanwhile arguing that there should be no change in international arrangements for radio frequency allocation, providing time to migrate viewers from terrestrial television transmissions.
There is currently only certainty of provision of television through an aerial in the United Kingdom for around another ten years.
56% of homes in the United Kingdom use digital terrestrial television, down from about 70% in five years. 35% of homes rely exclusively on digital terrestrial television, which has risen slightly from 32% in the last five years.
The future of the remaining frequencies used for television transmissions will be determined at a meeting of the World Radiocommunication Conference of the International Telecommunications Union. The WRC23 conference will take place in Dubai in November and December 2023.
The choice will between no change to the allocation of frequencies currently used for terrestrial television and for programme making and special events, and what is called co-primary allocation, meaning that they will also be available for mobile communications services.
The United Kingdom is part of ITU Region 1, which includes Europe and Africa. Any decision on frequency allocation will apply to all countries within the region.
The European Commission has responded to lobbying by broadcasters and operators in the European Union by saying terrestrial television frequencies should be retained. An estimated one in five households in Europe exclusively relies on digital terrestrial television. European Member states are expected to vote as a single bloc.
Ofcom has not yet declared an official position for the United Kingdom, but providers of mobile networks are predictably arguing for a reallocation of frequencies currently used for television.
Arqiva, which operates digital terrestrial television transmission networks in the United Kingdom, is campaigning to retain the system to beyond 2040.
As part of its Broadcast 2040+ campaign, Shuja Khan, the chief executive of Arqiva, has written to Michelle Donelan, the culture secretary, calling for a strong political commitment to keeping broadcast television and radio universally available until at least 2040. “The Government is only committed to these services until the early 2030s,” he wrote. “On questions of national infrastructure, that is closer than it seems.”
What has so far been missing from the debate is any concrete plan for any future television transition, comparable with the move from analogue to digital transmission. It seems clear that a hybrid of broadcast and broadband delivered services will be part of the picture for many years. This is a scenario that standards such as DVB-I and the Service List Registry platform are intended to address.