The BBC and ITV are to launch free-to-view satellite service in a joint venture, following approval of the proposal by the BBC Trust. “Freesat,” as it is currently known, will provide around 200 standard and high-definition channels, available without subscription across the United Kingdom, aiming to launch in the spring of 2008.
“The BBC’s objective in launching Freesat is to support digital switchover by providing another way for licence payers to receive digital television channels and radio services, subscription free from the BBC and ITV,” said Mark Thompson, the BBC director general. “Its primary purpose is to drive digital take-up in analogue homes, particularly in those areas which are out of digital terrestrial coverage.”
He added that Freesat would offer a free-to-view digital upgrade path, including the benefit of high-definition services.
Michael Grade, the executive chairman of ITV plc, the commercial broadcaster, said: “Freesat will build on the success of Freeview by offering viewers a simple and cost effective way of upgrading to digital TV. By filling in the current gaps in Freeview coverage, Freesat will ensure that a free-to-air, no strings attached option for accessing digital TV is available to the whole of the UK ahead of digital switchover.”
The BBC and ITV have been working with selected manufacturers, retailers and installers to develop the consumer proposition.
The Freesat concept has been under consideration for a considerable time. It will provide consumers with an alternative to Sky, which already offers access to channels without subscription, in addition to its pay-television services.
Building on the success of Freeview, which is now the most popular way of receiving digital television in the United Kingdom, Freesat will offer a viable alternative to those homes that are currently unable to receive digital terrestrial television.
It also offers a route to receiving high-definition channels and calls into question whether high-definition services will be necessary for digital terrestrial television.
Following a consultation, the BBC Trust has decided not to apply a full public value test to the Freesat proposition which it apparently considers to be a ‘non-service’. It argues that the BBC is obliged to “do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that viewers, listeners and other users are able to access the UK public services intended for them”. The Trust has asked the BBC management to “to move swiftly in developing plans”.
As conditions of approval, the Trust requires that its interaction with Freeview is operationally separate from its involvement with Freesat, with funding from other broadcasters maintained such that it can be demonstrated that they are not being subsidised by the television licence fee.
In implementing Freesat, it says arrangements should be sought to ensure the necessary quality and technical standards of the receivers and electronic programme guide required to access the service, taking reasonable steps to ensure that it is able to co-exist with other digital television platforms without impairing their technical operations.
Meanwhile, the BBC Trust will apply a public value test to plans by the BBC to operate a permanent high-definition television service. It will commence on 21 May, when further details of the service will be published, along with the terms of reference for a market impact assessment by Ofcom.
Technical details of the platform have not been announced. It seems likely that it may support MHEG-5, which is used to provide interactive services on digital terrestrial television in the United Kingdom and has been extended to support an optional broadband return path.
An alternative option would be to adopt MHP, which provides an arguably more powerful platform for future services.
It is of course conceivable that it could support the proprietary OpenTV system that is used by BSkyB to enable the same interactive services to be delivered across both the Freesat and Sky platforms.