“Thank you for your email of 26 May, and further email of 22 June, to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), about Freeview channels. I am replying as a member of the DCMS Ministerial Support Team.
It is unfortunately the case that some Freeview viewers receive fewer channels than viewers in other areas. This is because Freeview (terrestrial TV) services in the UK are broadcast from a network of 80 primary transmitter masts. These masts are generally tall structures which operate at high power levels so as to provide coverage to as many viewers as possible and 90 per cent of UK viewers are in areas covered by signals from a primary mast. However, these signals are not available in all areas, often due to factors such as distance from the transmitter or to the nature of the local terrain.
In order to extend terrestrial TV coverage to such areas, between the 1970s and the 1990s, broadcasters progressively built an extensive network of smaller analogue relay transmitters which provided fill-in signal coverage where possible which increased the total availability of terrestrial signals to around 98.5 per cent of the UK population. There are now around 1,100 of these relay transmitters in the UK.
Relay transmitters do not broadcast as many channels as the primary transmitters. This is because digital television, unlike analogue television, is transmitted in groups of channels known as multiplexes of which there are currently six. Three of these multiplexes are known as the ‘public service broadcaster’ multiplexes and carry the digital equivalents of the old analogue channels (BBC 1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5), and around 11 other standard definition channels. The public service broadcaster multiplexes also include four high definition channels which can be received by viewers with Freeview HD compatible equipment.
At the time of digital switchover, in keeping with the Government’s requirement that the former analogue channels should be as widely available in digital form as they were in analogue, Ofcom required broadcasters to upgrade all their relays as well as the primary transmitters to carry the public service multiplexes. This ensures that these core services continue to be available to at least 98.5 per cent of the UK population.
The other three multiplexes are known as the commercial multiplexes, and are operated by the transmission company Arqiva and SDN Ltd (a subsidiary of ITV plc). The commercial multiplexes have been broadcast from the UK’s 80 primary transmitters for some years. However, because the commercial multiplexes do not carry any of the old analogue channels, the decision about whether to upgrade relays as well as the primary transmitters was a commercial one for the multiplex operators. Ofcom cannot require the operators to upgrade further transmitters to carry the commercial multiplexes and while the commercial operators were given the opportunity to add further transmitters to their networks at the time of switchover, they have chosen not to do so.
It is also worth mentioning that there are insufficient ‘spare’ transmission frequencies available to allow all relays to be upgraded to carry the commercial multiplexes, although the main constraint is that of poor commercial viability.
In practice this means that viewers who use a relay transmitter are able to receive up to 20 Freeview TV channels, including all of the channels they were able to receive before switchover and all of the BBC’s licence-fee funded terrestrial TV services, as well as a selection of HD channels which can be received on Freeview HD equipment. Those viewing from primary transmitters are able to receive more than 40 TV channels.
As the coverage and range of available Freeview channels varies by area, viewers were advised to contact Digital UK before digital switchover took place for information on channel availability at specific locations from the time of switchover. Digital UK can also provide information on alternative reception platforms for viewers who wish to receive a wider range of channels. Alternative reception options include the non-subscription satellite services operated by Freesat (www.freesat.co.uk) and freesat from Sky (www.sky.com/shop/freesat). Digital UK can be contacted on 08456 50 50 50, or via www.digitaluk.co.uk.”