Millions of households will need a Freeview retune in order to keep receiving channels in the coming months, with details circulated by the Confederation of Aerial Industries (CAI).
Between now and May 2020, 700MHz will cleared for use by ‘5G’ mobile broadband services. Some Freeview channels will need to move to new frequencies and viewers will need to retune to continue watching. The changes also affect YouView (BT TV, TalkTalk TV, Plusnet TV), EE TV and Now TV Smart Box users, as all of these services piggyback off Freeview. Viewers in most parts of London, the Midlands, North West England and the South East will be affected during February and March 2018. Other parts of the UK will follow, although northern Scotland has already completed the process. Retune dates will be released ahead of each frequency change by Digital UK.
Freeview will have a dedicated area on its website explaining the changes and an advice line will also offer retuning help. These will go live closer to the time. In many cases only certain groups of channels will be affected. However, in the run up to the changes, engineering work at transmitter sites may result in spells of weak or degraded reception, or no reception at all. The BBC’s interactive transmitter checker carries details of any work that might have affected reception of BBC services, although there isn’t a similar public tool for commercial channels.
Commercial, HD and local TV channels are the most likely to be affected depending on your local Freeview transmitter: for example in London, the frequency changes will affect services including BBC News HD, FreeSports and London Live, whereas the main five channels won’t be affected at all. Viewers in parts of the East Midlands will see services such as 5Spike, Yesterday and Ideal World affected, alongside FreeSports and QVC HD. The main six national multiplexes that carry main channels will retain the same or similar coverage area, so that viewers should continue receiving the main Freeview service. An aerial change might be required.
In addition, there are two temporary multiplexes of channels carrying HD services like 4seven HD and BT Showcase HD and one local TV multiplex that have reduced UK coverage. A small number of households may lose coverage, especially those that are currently technically outside a service’s core area but still receive signals. The same is true for those households that can currently receive services via overspill reception from another TV region.
To reduce the impact on core coverage there will be some additional changes at some transmitters: for example, Brighton’s Whitehawk Hill transmitter is already simulcasting some channels on two frequencies in the interim. The Rouncefall transmitter in Essex and Haslemere relay in Sussex will start transmitting extra channels to help reception from next year. Local TV services in Manchester, Liverpool and Blackpool/Preston will benefit from a power boost.
In some areas, a ‘Group K’ aerial might be required as services move to frequencies not previously used in an area. If you lose access to the main Freeview channels like BBC One or Channel 4 as a direct result of the frequency change, then you might be entitled to support and a free aerial upgrade (not if you have an indoor aerial). Details will be provided around each retune event regarding what to do if reception is lost. A pilot exercise in the Scottish Borders in March 2017 confirmed that relatively few households needed any remedial aerial work. Unfortunately in some areas it will be necessary for multiple frequency changes and thus more retunes to take place during the next two and a half years. This is so that interference can be minimised. If you’re affected, more information will be provided ahead of each retune day. While many TVs are now able to automatically add, move and delete channels, a frequency change will require a retune. In a separate process to all this, 4G mobile services in the adjacent 800MHz band will continue to expand coverage. Some viewers may need a 4G filter, but for many households, the new frequency shift will move services further away from 4G.
In areas where there are fewer Freeview services, the 700MHz band should be cleared during the initial retune. In areas where there are more Freeview services available, then some services currently in the 700MHz band will move to new frequencies, while low powered temporary multiplexes move the other way into the 700MHz band. In some areas, this process will take place over two and a half years. At the end of the process, the temporary multiplexes will be turned off and the 700MHz band will be clear. Changes will be made to the core Freeview service to accommodate displaced channels. At this point, older Freeview boxes may cease to receive all the channels that they could previously – but this won’t happen for some years yet.
In addition to all this, the two organisations behind Freeview have called on industry and policy makers to ‘step up’ their response to changes in television that are being driven by US tech firms. Freeview managing director Guy North and DUK chief executive Jonathan Thompson told the ‘Outside the Box’ event in London there was an urgent need to respond to challenges posed by the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple.