Freeview HD’s last channel is being opened up to commercial broadcasters who could launch a new HD channel or a brace of standard-definition channels later this year.
The slot has been empty since the launch of Freeview HD in 2010, after Channel 5 twice dropped out of a promise to add its high definition signal.
Now the BBC has invited bids from public and commercial broadcasters to join Freeview HD, with a launch window that opens in September.
Alix Pryde, the BBC’s director of distribution, said: “This is the first opportunity for a broadcaster other than the public service broadcasters to join the Freeview HD platform.”
“It’s a very flexible opportunity. It does not have to be used for an HD service. It could also be a very cost-effective way to launch several SD services.
“We will be lead by what the market wants to do, and that will be lead by what audiences find most attractive.”
The BBC has been talking to broadcasters, Pryde added, but the auction itself has to be conducted under a ‘fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory’ process.
Freeview HD currently has four channels – BBC HD, BBC One HD, ITV1 HD, and Channel 4 HD. BBC HD is expected to become BBC Two HD by the end of 2012, although a date has not been set.
When Channel 5 withdrew its offer of an HD channel for the second time, media regulator Ofcom told the BBC, which manages the Freeview HD multiplex, that it could offer it to other broadcasters.