Monday, 19 February 2007

Sky on digital terrestrial TV

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.


Wilko said...

The loss of Sky Three will probably not be too big a deal. Most of the programmes worth watching on that channel are in fact the scraps of those already broadcast to death on Sky One. As I see it, access to these shows will still be long as you sign up to the new service.

Still, this is mostly speculation, so I guess it’s a case of “wait and see” for now.

Improbulus said...

You're right wilko about Sky Three mostly being repeats of Sky One. However for people who don't even get Sky One like me (because they can't have a satellite dish, or because they can't or won't pay for Sky), it was nice to be able to get even those scraps via Freeview. You can still get access to Sky Three after the launch by signing up - but of course, it will no longer be for free, you'll have to start paying for the access.

From the Sky press release I don't think it's speculation - they are definitely going to withdraw Sky Three and the other services I mentioned which are currently on Freeview. And I would bet they won't give you DTT access to the new services (including the moved-across Sky Three) without your paying a sub, after the launch! But you never know, they could change their minds...!