Thursday, May 08, 2008

New Satellite TV launches in UK - Freesat

In my last post I mentioned that a new TV service in the UK would be launching soon. This launched on Tuesday. This service is available to most households in the UK via a satellite dish.

The name of the new service is Freesat. This is extremely confusing because there was already a free satellite TV service available from Sky with the same name. The Sky offering is normally now referred to as 'Freesat from Sky'. The new Freesat service is owned by the BBC and ITV. I am amused the word Sky is completely absent from the Freesat website and literature!!

If you have a Sky dish you can buy a Freesat set-top box (STB) at most large electrical retailers and just plug it in. Both systems use the same satellite signal for receiving channels. Freesat do have their own TV guide and interactive services that are completely separate from Sky.

In my last post I concluded the new service was a branding exercise and that it was pretty pointless. There have since been a couple of developments.

1. ITV HD will not be available on the Sky HD service. It will be exclusive to Freesat.
2. There will soon be televisions on the market that can receive Freesat without a separate STB.

Sky have been complaining about Freesat saying they already offered such a service and the new one is a waste of money. Given that Sky holds 17.9% shares in ITV it is very interesting that ITV HD will not be on Sky. The chairman of ITV was quoted as saying 'they would not give the channel to Sky for nothing'.

A number of broadcasters have been complaining about Sky's monopoly and business practices. Recently Sky withdrew their Sky One channel from the Virgin cable network because Virgin would not pay a massive price increase for the channel. Some small channels have been challenging the cost levied by Sky for carrying their channel.

There is more to this than meets the eye!

I would love to know how much is payed and in which direction for the channels on the Sky service. My hunch is Sky is used to charging content produces to transmit their channel on the Sky network. And ITV HD have told them to get stuffed! Sky is now playing catchup because their status as the only network with all available HD services is at risk. They are getting a taste of their own medicine! As a Sky HD customer I hope this is resolved and ITV HD will be on Sky soon.

The game I think ITV are playing is to get access to channels that have an exclusive contract with Sky - namely Channel 4 HD and Five (Both of these are absent from Freesat). Sky are going to be in trouble when they come to re-negotitate most of their contracts with content providers now they have competition! They are already at the limit of what most customers will pay to view a subscription TV service.

Where I really believe the new Freesat is justified is that anyone can make receiving equipment for the new service. The Sky receivers were only available from Sky. It was not possible to integrate these with televisions and recorders. This was a real headache if you did not subscribe to Sky+ - recording a weeks programmes meant setting your Sky receiver and your video device for each programme. The Sky programme guide is locked and can only be decoded by Sky - whereas the new Freesat system will be open to all.

Today the free service from Sky is better than the free service from Freesat. If both STBs cost the same I would choose a Sky one because I then have the option of paying for TV channels if my needs change.

If any more channels go Freesat exclusive Sky will have problems. I hope we don't get to a situation where consumers will need a STB for the Sky service and an STB for the Freesat service in order to get all the channels they want - not a desirable situation.


UPDATE: My imagination has been running on high since I wrote this article. Think of all the possibilities now there is an innovative new TV service. While the Sky service works - there have been no innovations from them for years. While the HD receiver has a network port and numerous USB ports - like the interactive card slot featured on all systems since launch they don't do anything.

Imagine if the new Freesat service allowed you to access your recorded shows as you wished? Maybe the box could have a built-in DVD burner? You could copy programmes onto an iPod or a PSP to watch on the move. You could watch live TV on your PC by connecting a web browser to your satellite receiver. You could manage all your recordings from anywhere on the internet! I hate having to turn my TV on just to set a show to record.

At present on Sky all the time-delayed and Hi Def versions of normal channels exist as separate channels. Imagine if the box could merge them into one. You press a button to switch between the current or the 1 hour delayed version. If there is a recording clash the system could automatically pick up one of your programmes from the time delay channel if possible. How user friendly would that be?

Also your satellite receiver could stream video files from your PC, and could connect to all the new TV over IP services such as the iPlayer or BT Vision.

Lastly what if more channels that are currently subscription only on Sky changed their business model as numerous newspapers have? If they gave them free they would have more viewers and could charge more for advertising. More and more choice of free TV channels would be wonderful!