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BBC consortium wins digital terrestrial licenses

Free-to-air platform to replace ITV Digital

LONDON — A BBC-led consortium has won the digital terrestrial licences once held by the now defunct paybox ITV Digital.

The pubcaster and its partners, transmission company Crown Castle and satcaster BSkyB, plan to offer 27 DTT channels under the banner Free To View. The platform will launch in the fall and require a £100 ($150) set top decoder.

Included are the established terrestrials, CNN, Turner Classic Movies, a new history channel, and existing non-pay digital channels, such as BBC Choice and ITV2, plus three channels from BSkyB, most notably Sky News.

The licenses, or so-called channel “multiplexes,” will be co-held by the BBC and Crown Castle and run for 12 years.

The BBC is set to spend $5.34 billion on developing digital TV, plus an additional $640 million over the next dozen years on the marketing and distribution of channels via DTT.

But before the licences are formally awarded there are conditions to be met.

The U.K.’s Independent Television Commission, which awarded the licenses, insists that BSkyB not be involved in running the operation. The satcaster already controls a substantial slice of Britain’s digital TV market with roughly two-thirds of the nation’s estimated 9 million digital households subscribing to its Sky Digital service.

Six consortia applied for the licences including a combined bid with a pay-TV element from ITV and Channel 4.

In awarding the licences to the BBC’s consortium, the ITC accepted that a non-pay offering is the way forward for DTT in the U.K.

ITC chairman Robin Biggam said: “The commission believes that the BBC-Crown Castle application is the most likely to ensure the viability of digital terrestrial television. It will target those viewers who have not been so far attracted by digital TV and will help facilitate the move towards digital switchover.”

The British government plans to switch off analog TV transmission as early as 2010.

BBC director general Greg Dyke said: “This is a fresh start for digital television in the U.K. and the best outcome for viewers. It won’t be an easy task – the platform has been through a major crisis – but we believe that a simple, entirely free-to-view digital option has the best chance of success with consumers.”

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