Sky on digital terrestrial TVMonday, February 19, 2007
I have mixed feelings about Sky's plans to launch a subscription television service on digital terrestrial television (DTT) this summer.
The new service will provide access to some of Sky's most popular programmes - including sport (live coverage from the Barclays Premiership and other top sporting events), movies, entertainment and news - through a normal rooftop aerial, as with Freeview, but via a special new DTT set-top box (STB).
There will be four 24-hour video streams of pay TV via MPEG4 compression technology, using a secure conditional access (CA) system like the system Sky uses for its satellite TV service, with "further improvements expected in future". The use of MPEG-4 is intended to increase the amount of content that can be carried. (The Ofcom item, see below, mentions a mix of MPEG2 and MPEG4 however.)
You'll have to buy a STB with the relevant CA software and MPEG 4 decoder, and also pay a monthly subscription. Sky expects "multiple manufacturers" to produce compatible set top boxes and other DTT receivers.
The bad news? To free up capacity for their new service, Sky will scrap Sky Three, Sky News and Sky Sports News - those three Sky DTT channels currently available for free will cease to be free-to-air via DTTV, even ahead of the launch of the pay-TV service. And I do watch some Sky Three programs.
Well I must be one of the only gadget freaks left in the UK who doesn't have Sky. I can't have a satellite dish on my roof (long story), so having Sky on digital TV would certainly finally give me access to Sky channels. But I barely have time to watch what's available on terrestrial TV and Freeview as it is, never mind Sky too, and I'm forever trying to clear space on my Topfield PVR!
The communications regulator Ofcom are to consider the proposals and have yet to approve them. They'll be consulting the public first, probably over a 10-week period after they receive the formal request for approval, on:
1. The impact on consumers of Sky's proposal to use MPEG4 compression technology via new set-top boxes, in order to increase the amount of content which can be carried. Ofcom say they would need to assess:
- The potential benefit of a rapid migration from the current compression standard MPEG2, to MPEG4 which will ultimately increase the number of channels available on digital terrestrial television;
- The potential detriment associated with a reduction in the number of channels received by existing set-top boxes or digital televisions;
- The risk that existing set-top boxes or digital televisions might be incompatible with multiplexes broadcast using a combination of MPEG2 and MPEG4 coding;
- The overall effect on consumer confidence in the digital switchover process.
2. Whether any variation to the channel line-up might unacceptably diminish the appeal of the channels to a variety of tastes and interests and whether a reduction in the current range of free-to-air channels would be compensated for by the proposed introduction of the new pay television channels.
3. The effect of any change to existing licence conditions and / or the need to include any new licence conditions to ensure fair and effective competition for the benefit of consumers.On balance, from a consumer viewpoint I'd rather not lose having Sky 3 for free, even if it means I'd have access (for a monthly fee) to a whole range of other Sky channels too. It depends on the exact packages that will be available, and the pricing of course. Sky say "Full details, including branding, pricing and the complete channel line-up, will be revealed closer to launch." So, we'll see.