BT is beginning field trials of a new service, currently called BT Freeview Plus, combining digital terrestrial television through an aerial and video on demand through a broadband internet connection.

The UK telecoms company has been in talks with broadcasters about providing content for the service. A commercial launch is currently slated for next summer, but could be brought forward.

As previously revealed by informitv, BT is planning to provide a hybrid digital television and broadband box that will combine off-air reception of live television with on demand content over a broadband connection.

The service will take advantage of BT’s ability to temporarily boost download speeds over broadband.

The combination of Freeview with an always-on internet connection could ultimately enable a more compelling range of interactive television services.

“This is the next step in the delivery of broadband Britain,” according to Andrew Burke, director of value-added services at BT. “It is right up our street in terms of the technology and the relationship with the consumer.”

Wanadoo, part of France Telecom, has previously announced plans for its Livebox broadband gateway, which could be extended to provide video on demand.

Broadband television is already available in France, and operators in Italy, Switzerland and Belgium are currently conducting commercial trials.

In the UK, Video Networks provides its Homechoice service in parts of London, but had less than 4,000 connections at the end of June, while Kingston Interactive in Hull had just over 5,200 subscribers.

BSkyB recently completed a deal with Video Networks to offer sport and movie subscription services on their platform, which are now being promoted as Sky by Wire.

Freeview and broadband are both rapidly gaining new users, and an integrated offering could provide a winning combination.

The latest figures from Ofcom estimate that there are 4.4 million Freeview receivers in the UK, of which about half a million are former ITV Digital set-top boxes and around another half a million are used as second sets in homes that already receive digital television.

BT already connects over 3 million broadband subscribers, either directly or through other service providers, and is adding an average 6,000 customers a day. BT Retail has around a quarter of the UK broadband market.

Conventional broadcasting remains the most cost effective means of delivering television channels, while video on demand offers the added benefit of convenience and the opportunity to provide pay per view services.

The video available over broadband using MPEG-2 at around 1.5 megabits per second currently leaves a lot to be desired, but new compression schemes offer better quality.