Tight spec 'makes Freesat future proof'

Despite talk of free to air principles and public service aims, Freesat is running a relatively closed shop. The BBC and ITV, who operate the service, have reasons - but are they convincing?

Freesat has come under fire from some, including Digital Spy forum members, for distancing itself from traditional free-to-air satellite broadcasting.

Channels which are already broadcasting in the clear on satellite are required to sign a contract with Freesat and pay a carriage charge - which keeps the service ticking over - before they can be part of its electronic programme guide.

A rigorous specification for Freesat equipment requires that, if viewable at all, non-Freesat FTA channels are separated from the rest in receiver interfaces.

The consequence is that hundreds of channels and radio stations available without subscription on existing satellite receivers - including the digibox provided with Sky's "FreesatFromSky" package - are not immediately visible to Freesat users.

The Freesat specification is owned and licensed by the company itself. This means only three selected manufacturers are currently making equipment, though products from a second wave are expected in early 2009. The standards are not open to adaptation and manufacturers must provide for a common "consumer experience" in menu-driven systems such as the electronic programme guide.

Critics of the approach are quick to point out that the development of Freesat - which its operators insist is an "open platform" - was partly funded by TV licence proceeds, so its nature should also square with the public service purposes of the BBC.

The corporation, along with ITV, have cited the need for a subscription-free option for those who cannot receive digital terrestrial signals - though by 2012 this will be a tiny proportion - and the need to get high definition to the non-pay TV masses.

Sky, whose domination of the satellite platform in the UK could be at risk from Freesat, has countered that it already has subscription-free offerings, and has said that the Freesat exclusivity of ITV HD hardly demonstrates a public service attitude.

In response, BBC director general Mark Thompson said FreesatFromSky was merely a way for Sky to up-sell customers to pay television and that FreesatFromSky is not really marketed due to the risk of losing out on subscriptions.

With respect to the tightly-controlled specification - and associated lack of products and channels - Freesat's main line of defence is the importance of the "consumer experience".

It has cast itself against the ballooning range of Freeview boxes, the price and quality of which varies widely. A shortfall in the openness of Freeview standards also emerged from the Teletext Extra programme guide which, when sent out to thousands of users, caused their equipment to crash.

James Atkins, Freesat marketing manager, explained: "The Digital TV Group owns the specification for Freeview boxes, which means it is completely open. What we've seen in recent years is the boxes have become so cheap that actually the consumer experience can potentially suffer, because things like the EPG are missing (from the specification). We are managing the consumer experience as much as possible."

The rules and guidelines are intended - and appear so far to have been successful - in creating coherent EPGs across all Freesat equipment. Atkins said someone familiar with one box would be able to use another intuitively - something not always the case for traditional FTA satellite receivers, particularly for novice users.

Catering for rural over-65s - a sizeable chunk of whom have not yet gone digital - can reasonably be seen as an important goal, but do they need over-air downloads, an Ethernet port, optical audio out, HDTV and interactivity using a new development of the MHEG standard?

These are some of the features required to be present in a Freesat box which, according to Atkins, would have been left out to cut costs if it had thrown the service open to all. To account for the bells and whistles, he hinted at a different and potentially more compelling public service argument.

Again, the new satellite service is contrasted to its terrestrial FTA cousin. Freeview has been a huge success, with more than 27m receivers shifted and digital TV brought to a significant chunk of the UK for the first time. However, its position as the ultimate easy-to-understand, cheap and cheerful digital TV solution could be thrown into flux within two years, when HD channels will appear on DTT. Crucially, they will only by viewable on a new breed of Freeview equipment equipped with the ability to cope with the more efficient MPEG-4 compression codec and the new DVB-T2 transmission standard.

The jump has the potential to upset the millions of people who have shelled out - and are still doing today - on non-HD Freeview products. It could leave Ofcom and the backers of Freeview, notably the BBC, open to criticism for creating a "second switchover". If the conversion to HD on DTT goes awry, high definition services from BBC and ITV could also be left with few eyeballs to view them.

So, in theory, in steps Freesat. A picture could soon emerge in which Freeview is in a state of confusion - millions owning set-top boxes, few understanding which are ready for HD - while Freesat appears to be prepared for all.

Atkins said: "What we've tried to do is spec our boxes so that they should still be state of the art in four or five years time." It is something no Freeview box on the market can plausibly claim, and sounds like an honest, public service aim. Freesat poses itself as a relatively "future proof" solution, therefore saving consumers money over several years. Additionally, the service could become something of an insurance policy to Freeview's potential instability during and after switchover.

Pat Norris, chairman of the satellite committee at UK technology association Intellect, spelled out the benefits: "Unlike the switch-over of conventional terrestrial TV from analogue to digital which takes several years to happen, satellite broadcasting is available to the whole country simultaneously and instantly."

According to the developers, Freesat is also ready for new applications that viewers may soon come to expect in their living rooms, such as the iPlayer and Project Kangaroo, the upcoming commercial video on demand service from BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4. They are areas where FreesatFromSky is certainly not ready to tread.

"We have a strategic plan of where we want to take the platform, including IPTV, the iPlayer, and other services," said Atkins. For some it is a stretch to see HD and VoD as public service necessities but - as the first major BBC HD ad campaign begins to roll - it is clearly a decision the corporation has taken.

There again, despite public service potential, Freesat is operating in a competitive market, and it will be unable to avoid a commercial-minded boast. "Even when HD terrestrial develops," asks Atkins, "why buy a Freeview HD box - which will have four channels - when, as more content becomes available, Freesat has the capacity for infinite HD?"