When will your Freeview box stop working?

My recent post on the new rules for Freeview has prompted some questions about how much longer people will be able to carry on using their first generation Freeview kit. To recap, from January 2017 all Freeview kit that’s sold will have to support HD.

The first thing to say is “Don’t panic.” That absolutely does not mean that in 2017, kit that doesn’t have HD will stop working. You will probably have a few more years’ life left in it – the question is quite how much.

Topfield 5800
SD-only kit like this Topfield will be well over ten years old by the time changes have to be made on Freeview

It’s also worth remembering that a huge amount of the equipment sold in recent years is for FreeviewHD anyway – that launched way back in 2010, and by 2013, 41% of all digital TVs sold were HD, and over 60% of all digital recorders. Those figures will be larger now. In May this year, Freeview reported total sales – that’s since 2002 – of over 100 million TVs and set top boxes, of which overt 16 million were HD.

That might sound like only 16% of equipment is HD capable, but it’s worth remembering that over such a long period, a lot of the first generation of equipment will have been replaced already.

We can safely assume, I think, that a very large number of people watching Freeview will – at least on their main TV – be doing so on a device that is capable of receiving Freeview HD. For those with a technical mind, that means that it supports both the transmission system called DVB-T2 and the picture encoding, called H.264. The first generation used DVB-T and MPEG2, both of which are far less efficient.

And it’s efficiency that’s really at the heart of questions about when your old box might stop working. When you hear the phrase “Freeview HD” you might thing about higher definition pictures, but on the engineering side, it’s really about doing more with less. The non-HD channels on Freeview almost all use the old standard, and so can be picked up on any receiver, dating all the way back to 2002.

But they don’t have to. While DVB-T2 and H.264 are associated primarily with HD, they can also be used for SD – like the Al Jazeera Arabic channel – and that’s much more efficient. It allows the same number of channels to be fitted into much less space.

Why is that important? Because some of the space currently used by digital TV will be handed over to mobile companies, in a process that’s supposed to be completed by the end of 2022. To maintain the current level of service, there will have to be some re-organisation on Freeview, to fit as many channels as we have now into less space.

And that means moving some of the channels from the old technology to the new. If you don’t have a box that can pick up the HD channels, then when the change happens, you’ll lose some of the channels you already get. No ifs, no buts. There’s simply no other way it can be done. The only alternative would be to not convert any of the channels, and then everyone would have to lose something, not just people with older kit.

The question at the top, “when will my box stop working” isn’t easy to answer right now. It’s long been thought by many people that, even when this “second switchover” takes place, one group of channels will be kept, broadcasting using the old technology, with a group of perhaps 6 to 8 of the core channels – probably the main BBC ones, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5.

By doing that, anyone who still had a box that doesn’t do HD will carry on receiving television through their aerial, albeit with not much more choice than they had in the analogue days.

More and more, though, I’m wondering if it’s really necessary to do that. The new rules for Freeview equipment mean that from the start of 2017, everything has to be ready for the latest technology. Since most TVs are larger, and the rules apply to sets above 32 inches from the start of next year, then we can say that at the end of 2022, when the changes have to be completed, equipment will have had to be compatible for at least five years.

Although most people don’t change their TV very often, anything people have in their homes that isn’t compatible will be at least half way through a ten year life span. Given that much of the kit sold has been able to receive Freeview HD for even longer – see the figures above – I think you could make a very good argument that anything that doesn’t support the HD technologies will be close to, or even past, a reasonable life span.

At the end of 2022, remember, even the first Freeview HD kit will be twelve years old. The Topfield TF5800 recorder, one of the first twin tuner units in the UK, was released in 2005. Even if SD signals were turned off in 2017 – and they’re not going to be – it would have had a decent life span.

In practice, I’d guess we’ll see the changes happen sometime in 2021/22, maybe a little earlier. It’s actually quite hard to be certain exactly what will happen at this stage because of a number of factors: the BBC charter review, the WRC-15 spectrum meeting, and the possible privatisation of Channel 4, for example. All of these could affect broadcasting, and a decision on which “Public Service” channels should be kept going in a ‘compatibility mode’ for people with older equipment.

It’s quite possible there will be that limited ‘compatibility’ for a while – but even then, I wouldn’t really expect it to last past 2025, by which time we’ll have had nine years of most new equipment having to be HD compatible.

FreeviewHDlogoSmall
Launched in 2010, from the start of 2016 Freeview HD support will be mandatory on sets larger than 32 inches

But honestly, I’m tending more to the view that if all that’s going to be available to people with older equipment is a small handful of stations, in a world where modern kit has so many other advantages, like built in access to catch up services, and things like Netflix or Amazon Prime, perhaps it will be time to call it a day and say “You know what, it’s time to update.”

I hope that the recent announcement of the changes to Freeview will be followed before too long by a clear statement of what will happen regarding the change to T2/H.264, so people know as soon as possible when their old kit will stop working completely, and what level of service they can get in the meantime.

My own personal choice, I think: announce Freeview’s first generation will stop in about 2020. I honestly think that’s going to be better than a slow wind-down, and lingering on with a rump of channels for a few more years before finally being switched off in the mid 2020s.

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