Ofcom warns over future of DTT

Ofcom’s HQ (Source: Ofcom)

UK regulator Ofcom has warned that over-the-air digital-terrestrial broadcasting faces a ‘tipping point’ after which it will no longer be viable to deliver TV in this way.

In a report to the Department of Culture, Media & Sport on the future of broadcasting, Ofcom said that, for the first time, many broadcasters foresaw a point at which DTT would simply no longer be viable.

“Broadcasters are looking to meet modern audience expectations while distribution costs both over broadband and traditional infrastructures like DTT are rising. As the time audiences spend on DTT declines, it becomes much less cost effective per viewer to serve those who remain on it. As such, a large number of broadcasters and DTT stakeholders have told us that they anticipate a tipping point at which it is no longer economically viable to support DTT in its current form,” the regulator said.

DTT until 2034

The report came as media minister Julia Lopez told the DTG Summit in London that the government was committed to support DTT until 2034.

“We in Government want to encourage the sector to keep embracing innovation and technological development, but we’re not going to pull the rug from under the devoted audiences of Freeview channels. That’s why we’ve committed to the future of DTT until 2034,” Lopez told attendees.

She said that the government would be “considering the conclusions of [Ofcom’s] call for evidence carefully” and that the fture of broadcast beyond 2034 was “not a decision we can or should take in isolation”.

Lopez also said that the government was looking to ensure a continued future for public service broadcasting and to ensure more consistent regulation of content across linear and on-demand platforms.

TV over the internet

Ofcom’s report meanwhile cited statistics that showed around 5.3m households now solely access TV over the internet, and that most viewers – 17.9  million – are hybrid viewers who combine over-the-air consumption with broadband-delivered viewing.

Around 3.9 million households rely wholly on DTT for TV reception, including a high proportion of older, disabled and less affluent people.

Ofcom said that viewing of scheduled TV channels through DTT and satellite is forecast to drop from 62% of viewing of total long form programmes10 in 2023 to 28% by 2035, and 22% by 2040.

At the same time, costs of distribution over all channels are rising.

Ofcom said that government will have a choice of whether to invest in making DTT more efficient, reducing DTT to a core service or ‘nightlight’ with s small number of core channels that could either be a transitional arrangement or run permanently, or to move towards complete DTT switch -off during the 2030s.

“For any of the approaches, a clear and timely vision is important to ensure that audiences are supported, and to give certainty to investors. Options which rely either on replanning the DTT broadcast frequencies, or a complex initiative to rollout and increase take-up of broadband, would take 8-10 years to plan and execute. With many multiplex licences expiring in 2034, and some sooner, the need for certainty about the future approach to DTT by 2026 is increasingly pressing, in line with the Government’s current planned work,” said the regulator.

High-speed broadband take-up hurdle

Take of high-speed broadband is seen as the major hurdle in the way of switch off, and government would need to design a scheme to ensure that take-up became universal, the watchdog said.

Discussion of a switch-off of broadcast has caused alarm among those representing the interests of groups most likely to be affected.

“When the banks were taking cash machines away from our high streets, the government stepped in to protect access to cash. Now they need to do the same and protect traditional terrestrial TV, received for free via an aerial, for the long-term,” said a spokesperson for the Broadcast 2024+ Campaign.

“Without certainty about its future, millions who use and rely on broadcast services, including many of the most vulnerable in society and those who cannot, or do not wish to pay for, super-fast broadband or who lack digital skills, face the threat of TV exclusion. Any debate about the future of television must put viewers first. Millions of people in Britain, often the most vulnerable, rely on universal, free to air terrestrial TV and will continue to do so for decades to come.”

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