The future of digital terrestrial television in the United Kingdom is up for debate. The government has committed to the future of the platform until 2034, but some broadcasters foresee a time when it is no longer economically viable to support digital terrestrial television distribution in its current form. The communications regulator Ofcom says that the consensus in the broadcasting industry that digital terrestrial television should continue indefinitely has broken. It has provided the government with a report on the Future of TV Distribution, outlining some of the options, including a managed migration to online delivery.

In 2023, according to the BARB establishment survey, 13.2 million homes in the United Kingdom had an antenna connected to their main television set in 2023, The majority of those already had an internet connection to their set-top box or television. However, 3.3 million households relied exclusively on digital terrestrial television to access any television service. That number has fallen from 6. 5 million at the start of 2018.

UK TV Homes by platform 2013-2023. Source: BARB establishment survey

So far, any migration of audiences online has been organic, but if this were to continue without co-ordination, cumulative decisions by audiences, channels, platform providers, and key investors could leave the terrestrial broadcast platform under-supported.

Without a clear vision and careful planning for the long term that includes all audience groups, these decisions could cumulatively weaken the level of provision, and threaten the universality of public service television.

Ofcom suggests three broad approaches, although it does not signal any particular preference.

The first option is to invest in more efficient digital terrestrial television transmission formats.

The second is to reduce the digital terrestrial television platform to a core ‘nightlight’ service retaining just the main public service channels, either in preparation for a fuller switch off, or to remain indefinitely as a provider of last resort.

The third is to plan to switch off terrestrial transmitters in the longer term following a planned migration to online delivery.

With many multiplex licences expiring in 2034, and some sooner, there is a pressing need for certainty about the future approach to digital terrestrial television.

The Ofcom report, effectively commissioned by the government, drew on a call for evidence from industry stakeholders. The responses to this have been published by Ofcom.

Ofcom says that the needs of all audiences must be at the heart of any approach. In all cases, the broadcast and broadband industries would need to work with government to set a common vision for how to deliver universal television services in future, followed by detailed planning.

An inclusive transition would take 8-10 years, so it is important to make plans now to be ready for any changes by the early 2030s.

Earlier, in a speech to the Digital Television Group annual summit, the media minister Julia Lopez announced plans for a stakeholder forum to hear voices from across the industry.

She said there was a responsibility to audiences to ensure that they continue to have access to reliable, free to view television in a format that is familiar to them.

“The further and faster the transformation, the stronger this responsibility becomes,” she said. “We need to do more to understand what drives viewers’ decisions, and how we can help everyone to take advantage of these new technologies, giving them not just the tools they need, but a compelling reason to make the leap, and supporting them if they don’t want to.”

The Future of TV Distribution: Early market report to Government is published on the Ofcom web site, together with responses from stakeholders to its previous call for evidence.