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Will the new HD channels requiring upgrades of digital equipment pose a threat to the future of free digital TV services, such as Freeview and Freesat? asks George Cole.

Last year saw the UK finally switchover from analogue television to digital, which makes it good time to consider what the future holds for the two major digital free-to-air TV services, Freesat and Freeview. Freeview offers over 50 channels including, several HD channels: BBC One HD, The BBC HD Channel, ITV1 HD and Channel 4 HD. The BBC and Channel 4 have suggested using the spare 600MHz frequency band to offer up to ten more Freeview HD channels, a proposal supported by Ofcom. However, in order to view the new HD channels, consumers would need to upgrade their digital TV equipment to a standard known as DVB-T2, which uses a more efficient form of video compression than the current technology (DVB-T).

The HD challenge

Guy North, marketing communications director of Freeview, is keen on the prospect of extra HD channels, “This is something we would most certainly welcome given that through our own research we have found substantial consumer appetite for this type of content”. Bob Hannent, senior technology manager at Humax, is more cautious, “There is still a surprisingly strong market for low-end, standard definition set-top box products, which means there are still products in the market that are not able to receive HD channels.” He notes that while additional Freeview HD channels may increase interest in high definition viewing and drive more people to upgrade, the business case for further HD channels has always been difficult for financially-pressed broadcasters. “I also have a concern around the commitment to providing real HD channels instead of just upscaled content,” he adds.

Panasonic spokesperson Matthew Billing, says, “More HD channels has got to be a good thing, because HD is a fantastic medium. However, if its arrival was at the expense of the picture quality for existing digital television channels, I would be concerned.” Steve Simper, managing director of aerial, satellite and set-top box distributor, Alltrade, says, “We think it’s good news for the consumer and should help retail too. More HD channels, particularly if backed by BBC and C4 advertising, should encourage more people to upgrade their TVs to HD or buy a suitable receiver to connect to their HD ready TVs.” Brian Desmond, technical and service manager TP Vision UK, adds a note of caution,  “We are in favour of more free to air HD channels, but we are also concerned that there are no guarantees that any additional HD channels will indeed be free-to-air services.”

The risks of 4G

The arrival of 4G and (later) 5G high-speed mobile phone services will mean Freeview shifting along the frequency spectrum, with many consumers needing to re-tune or purchase new equipment. So what should the industry be doing to help them? “Freeview recognises the benefits that super-fast broadband will bring to Britain. However, we remain concerned about the risk of television interference to many Freeview homes as a result of the 4G roll out and planned 5G roll out. As we represent the interests of all our viewers, we believe it is of paramount importance that they are provided with the right level of assistance to minimise interference with their TV service and do not have to bear a disproportionate cost,” says Freeview’s North.

“The parties with the real power to drive the PVR are the broadcasters. We would strongly encourage them to ensure that PVR functionality of ‘+’ products is part of their general and HD channel promotions”

Alltrade’s Simper says, “From the trade point of view, it should be viewed as more of an opportunity than a concern as it could potentially generate business in specialist products, such as filters, and revenue from customers who need technical help and solutions to this potential problem.” Humax’s Hannent says, “The greatest concern will be the consumers who have already purchased band-specific antennas instead of wide-band antennas.” T P Vision’s Desmond thinks that the mobile companies will address these issues, “We understand that the mobile broadband operators’ company, Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited, is currently working to ensure that any possible interference from new 4G services is minimized, and it‘s expected they will eventually perform a similar function for the introduction of 5G.”

Some think that future changes mean it’s time to consider launching Freeview products that are both DVB-T and DVB-T2 compatible, in order to future-proof them. “All products should be DVT-T and DVB-T2 compatible – but that still does not ensure they are future proof in a technology sector that continues to evolve,” says Alltrade’s Simper. TP Vision’s Desmond thinks that equipment compatible with DVB-T and DVB-T2 will become standard over time. Humax’s Hannent says, “I expect that TVs could easily become Freeview HD only. However, this could jeopardise the small TV market, which does not support the Freeview brand. For set-top boxes post-switchover, we should see a reduction in the number of basic standard definition products, and over time, will see a conversion to DVB-T2.”

Freesat’s platform

Freesat offers more than 150 channels, and Dan Chronnell, head of product development, Freesat, says the three biggest sales drivers are, “No contract and subscription-free; a wide choice of channels and content; including five HD channels and catch-up services, and a good range of products, ranging from £34 to £299.” Freesat has high hopes for its new EPG, designed for Freesat+ boxes, and which offers catch-up programmes. “We plan to give customers the choice of additional pay VOD (video-on-demand) services in the future – these will be completely optional for customers on top of our core service, which will always be free,” says Chronnell

Other Freesat plans for 2013 include a companion app for smartphones and tablets, which will offer remote control and remote record capability away from the standard remote. “We’re really excited by this development, this will help bring all of our latest features, such as the Showcase and our improved on-demand capability, to a much wider audience,” says Chronnell.

The role of broadcasters

Humax’s Hannent  thinks the industry should do more to push the benefits of  Freeview+ and Freesat+ personal video recorders, “The advantages of recording with these technologies are still not fully appreciated by consumers and many people are persisting with DVD recorders, which are little better than a VCR. It is a challenge to reach those customers who are yet to discover an advanced recorder, but one that I believe the industry is keen to embrace.” Alltrade’s Simper says, “The parties with the real power to drive the PVR are the broadcasters. We would strongly encourage them to ensure that PVR functionality of ‘+’ products is part of their general and HD channel promotions.” 

The next step

Looking to the future, TP Vision’s Desmond would like to see, “More free-to-air HD channels and interactive services; remote record functionality and a 3D channel to demonstrate the full benefits of the latest TV technology.” Humax’s Hannent hopes public service broadcasters like ITV and Channel 4 will offer more catch-up TV services, “The TV industry should ultimately be aiming for all of its content to be available through catch-up,” he says. Alltrade’s Simper is optimistic about the future, “With more HD channels coming along, PVR functionality still well short of market saturation, and broadcasters promising more advertising of their digital services, the Freeview/Freesat market could remain healthy for some time to come.”

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