The BBC Trust has provisionally approved proposals to launch a ‘Freesat’ free-to-view satellite platform as a joint venture with other public service broadcasters in the United Kingdom. The Trust has announced a public consultation period of just 28 days before making its final decision in April.

BBC services are already available free-to-air on satellite without a subscription. BSkyB currently markets a ‘Freesat from Sky’ option but this is not widely promoted compared to its subscription services. The BBC holds the trade mark on the term ‘Freesat’.

“It needs to be clear that the benefits of digital television do not need to equal ‘pay television’,” said acting BBC Chairman Chitra Bharucha. “A new, guaranteed subscription-free satellite service would provide the public another option when deciding which platform to choose.”

“For these homes, the new service would mean being able to access BBC digital services they have already paid for via their licence fee but until now have been unable to receive on a guaranteed subscription-free basis.”

“We have considered the market impact and whilst there may be some negative effects, in our view these should be balanced against the potential positive market impact of greater choice,” continued the announcement from the BBC Trust. “Overall, we believe a ‘Freesat’ service to be in the public interest and we hope that other public service broadcasters would join the BBC in a joint venture.”

The BBC Trust has decided that the proposal meets their definition of a ‘non-service’ activity as it will not commission its own content. It therefore considers that it does not require a public value test which it says is “reserved for the most important decisions about new or significantly changed public services”.

However, the Trust has provisionally concluded that there is significant public value in the ‘Freesat’ proposition as an alternative to the free satellite option currently available from Sky.

The Trust concedes that “the proposal is most likely to impose a competitive constraint on Freesat from Sky” and that it may also have some effect on subscription services, especially for basic channel packages.

The ‘Freesat’ proposal is for a set-top box available as a one-off purchase, which could include high-definition and personal video recorder compatibility, marketed through retail outlets and on the web.

The BBC intends to establish a joint venture company with other public service broadcasters to manage the marketing and technical aspects of the new platform. Set-top boxes would be supplied by third parties working with retailers to a specification agreed with the joint venture company.

The Freesat operation would be responsible for managing the electronic programme guide or EPG, including collation and transmission of system management and schedule data, the development and maintenance of open technical standards for broadcasters and receiver manufacturers and the marketing of the proposition. It would not manufacture or provide receivers.

The Freesat platform could support a future BBC high-definition service. It would also allow broadcasters to provide richer interactive services than are currently available through Freeview.

No details of proposed standards for interactive services have been announced. It would provide an opportunity to embrace the open MHP Multimedia Home Platform, although the more limited MHEG-5 standard used for Freeview could also be adopted for Freesat.

The BBC Governors previously submitted a proposal to the government to launch a free open standard satellite service. Under the terms of the new BBC Charter, the decision to approve the service now rests with the new BBC Trust.

Details of the public consultation are available on the BBC Trust section of the BBC web site.