Three free high-definition (HD) TV channels are to be launched by the end of next year, it’s been announced.
The channels – to be joined by a fourth by 2012 – will air on the digital terrestrial (Freeview) service which is in 15 million homes and expected to grow.
The BBC will get one of the channels and the other three will be awarded to commercial public service broadcasters such as ITV, Channel 4, Five and S4C following a bidding process.
Currently, high-definition channels are available only on Sky and cable.
Digital terrestrial users will have access to the channels region by region, simultaneously with the process of digital switchover.
Homes in the Granada region will be the first to benefit in 2009, while viewers in London will have to wait until 2012.
Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said: ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to upgrade digital terrestrial television.
‘It offers benefits for broadcasters – who will be able to launch new services without using any new spectrum – and viewers – who will have access to new channels and services on free to air.’
The launch of the service will make Freeview, now included in many TVs, a tougher competitor against Sky.
To take advantage of the HD services, television viewers will need to buy an HD-ready set and HD-ready set-top box but the channels will be free-to-air.
Space for the new channels will be created by reorganising one of the three multiplexes used for public service broadcasting, which is currently licensed to the BBC.
Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, said: ‘We know from previous consultations that there is much support amongst the public for high definition services.
‘The BBC Trust therefore welcomes the revised proposition announced by Ofcom today for multiplex capacity to commercial public service broadcasters.
‘The Trust has agreed to work with Ofcom to allow HD on Freeview, reflecting our respective responsibilities for the services and licences which facilitate operation of the DTT platform. The BBC can now move forward with its HD service on Freeview.’
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