Monday, 28 February 2005

Random observations about UK digital TV

by Charles Pooter

Analogue TV will be phased out in the UK sooner than expected. At the moment there are 4 options for the consumer when it comes to digital TV:

  1. Freeview is the UK's only terrestrial digital TV service, mostly owned by the BBC who cunningly snatched the majority share after ITV Digital went bust. They abolished the subscription model that fueled the service, allowing their exclusive TV tax to continue into the digital age. After all, the licence fee appears even less defensible when there is a working terrestrial subscription model in operation. Much to the horror of the BBC, a new subscription service has been launched by SDN, a minor Freeview partner.

  2. Sky Digital, Sky's digital TV service is state of art and a model for providers around the world. They have recently reported increased profits and have had great stock market success. This is partly due to their Sky+ service which has allowed them to extract more money from each subscriber in exchange for a much improved service. Sky+ is an integrated "Personal Video Recorder" (PVR) service. When you subscribe you get a box which contains two sky decoders and a large hard drive. When you combine this box with the "Electronic Programme Guide" (EPG) and user interface provided by sky, the way you view TV is completely changed. A friend of mine has described it thus:
    "Every Sunday evening I sit down with the remote and look through the Electronic Program Guide and select the few decent programmes (in a sea of crap) that I want to watch in the next week. As the week progresses, these programmes get automatically recorded onto the Sky+ box. When ever I fancy watching some TV, I just pick a programme from what's been recorded so far."
    This is obviously completely different from the normal "sit down, flick through channels, watch whatever crap is on" model of TV viewing. Terrestrial and even digital terrestrial PVRs are also available, but Sky sells a simple to use, integrated package. As a broadcaster, all this puts them in very enviable position: they broadcast the programs and they control the box in your living room. This means they will have more DRM control than other broadcasters, which in turn means they will become more trusted by content providers (e.g. Hollywood). It also allows them the possibility of stopping you from skipping adverts in programmes, although as it happens Sky is not that dependent on advertising (but you wouldn't know it from the amount of adverts they show).

  3. Digital cable TV is available in many places in the UK and the two main companies are NTL and Telewest. It is priced competitively against Sky and is often bundled with phone and broadband internet packages. However from what I've seen of NTL's service, I'm not impressed. Their picture quality seems poor compared with Freeview, their EPG is always slow and at times unusable, they have no PVR option, they have very little interactive content and their customer service is appaling. Considering they potentially have complete control of their own high-capacity fibre optic network and can choose the hardware you have in your home, this seems very poor.

  4. IP TV is TV over an internet connection. One company that has been doing this for a while is Homechoice. You can read about them in this Register article. As the article makes clear, this could become very big indeed. More evidence for this is the recent tie up between Alcatel, who make the hardware and Microsoft.

So what do I want from digital TV? Well first and foremost I'm a cheapskate, so that rules out Sky+ or indeed anything with a monthly subscription. Obviously I evade the BBC's TV tax (on principle you understand), so for me that makes Freeview completely free. However what I really want is a Freeview PVR box with two tuners and a decent EPG. Ideally I also want a DVD burner built in, so programmes can be "backed-up" to DVD whenever I feel like it. So far, such a thing does not exist, but surely it's only a matter of time?

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