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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 March 2007, 07:54 GMT
Pressure mounts on Ofcom over HD
Man watching HDTV through shop window
Consumer interest in HDTV is growing
A group of broadcasters, retailers and manufacturers is leading a campaign to ensure universal availability of high-definition TV in the UK.

Plans to auction off the airspace required for HDTV to work on the Freeview platform means viewers would not have access to the technology.

The campaign - dubbed HDforAll - wants spectrum ring-fenced for digital terrestrial Freeview viewers.

Ofcom argues that it cannot specify what spectrum is used for.

Viewers of paid-for satellite and cable services already have access to HDTV but for Freeview viewers more bandwidth is required.

Ring-fenced spectrum

We could have a situation where the rest of the world is watching the Olympics in HD while people in the UK can't
Adrian Northover-Smith, Sony

According to Ofcom's figures more than one in four of the UK's television sets are now connected to a Freeview device.

Uptake of the digital platform has been crucial to government plans to switch off the analogue signal by 2012.

When this happens, it will free up spectrum that could be used to bring HDTV to the Freeview platform.

The auction process proposed by Ofcom means crucial HD airspace could be sold off to the highest bidder, such as mobile companies, leaving Freeview viewers with no access to the technology, say campaigners.

Members of the HDforAll campaign - which includes industry heavyweights such as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sony, Samsung and the Dixons retail group - want Ofcom to ring-fence up to one third of the spectrum for digital terrestrial TV viewers.

They are concerned that the UK will become a two-tier TV nation, with those prepared to pay having access to better quality TV pictures.

"We could have a situation where the rest of the world is watching the Olympics in HD while people in the UK can't. The UK was leading the world in digital TV but there is the possibility of becoming second-class TV citizens," said Adrian Northover-Smith, digital development manager at Sony.

Benefit of society

If we were to allocate it for specific uses it would stop it being used for other purposes
Ofcom spokesman

For the BBC, the arguments for making HD universally available are obvious.

"High definition is already a consumer reality, and it's one that really adds value for audiences. It's a technological advance we think can and should be available as far as possible to all viewers, whether they watch TV through cable, satellite or an aerial, and whether they choose pay or free-to-air television," said a BBC spokesperson.

"Without some intervention to allocate additional spectrum it is very unlikely that sufficient HD channels could be launched to ensure that Freeview keeps pace with changing consumer expectations," she added.

Ofcom told the BBC News website that there will be enough spectrum for "up to five HD channels" on Freeview.

This is disputed by HDforAll.

"This is a wonderfully mischievous line from Ofcom. No-one has been able to figure out how that is possible. While there is potential for two or three channels, five simply doesn't fit the available spectrum," said a spokesman for HDforAll.

Ofcom maintains that the public is best served by spectrum being made available on the open market.

"Our objective is to maximise the benefit of spectrum to society," said an Ofcom spokesperson.

"If we were to allocate it for specific uses it would stop it being used for other purposes. We do not think we are in a position to make those decisions," he added.

Ofcom's research conducted for its Digital Dividend Review, which outlines its proposals for selling off spectrum. found that people weren't particularly interested in HD.

"We did our own research and found that this simply isn't the case. In fact consumer demand for HD is growing at a colossal rate," said Danny Churchill, technology development consultant for the Dixons Group.

One of the findings of the Dixons research was that there was actually greater consumer awareness about HDTV (90%) than digital switchover (80%).

Consumer confusion

It is predicted that five million HD-ready TV sets will be sold in 2007.

However research commissioned by Digital UK, the group charged with overseeing the digital switchover, has revealed that many Britons remain confused by the technology.

The survey asked more than 1,000 adults what equipment they would need to receive HD TV. Only 23% knew that they would require both a HD-ready TV and a set-top box. The majority either gave the wrong answer or said they did not know.

More than one-third (37%) believed that they were already watching HDTV. With only an estimated 250,000 HD boxes on the market, this is clearly not the case. If the numbers were extrapolated to the whole population, it would mean around 1.5m households mistakenly believing they are watching HDTV already.

Some 18% of those surveyed said they already had HD-ready TV sets. Extrapolated this would represent some 4.5m sets, but only 2.4m HD-ready TV sets were sold in 2006.

Ofcom is keen to point out that the debate about the future of spectrum is not over. Its proposals, which have caused heated debate since they were published at the end of last year, is open to public consultation until 20 March.

Ofcom is due to report back its findings in the summer.

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