All about Freesat

Originally published in Personal Computer World.

All about Freesat

For many years, satellite television in the UK has been synonymous with one company – Rupert Murdoch’s Sky. Thanks to encryption contracts and proprietary software, anyone hoping to be able to record programmes on a media centre PC has been out of luck, with major channels like Channel 4 locked up using Sky’s encryption system.

But all that changed in May with the launch of Freesat, a new service backed by the BBC and ITV, promising free channels – including all five of the terrestrial services – free high definition and easy to use features like an electronic programme guide.

But, beyond all the fanfare that surrounded Sky’s first ‘free to air’ competition, what has really changed with the launch of Freesat and – more importantly for PCW readers – does the new service mean that, finally, satellite reception on the PC is a more practical proposition than it has been in the past?

In this feature, we’ll be looking at what Freesat really is, and finding out whether and how it’s changed, not just standard TV viewing, but also the landscape for PC owners who are thinking about using their computers to record and watch digital television.

What is Freesat?

Amidst all the publicity that Freesat received when it launched, there’s also been a certain amount of confusion – one PC satellite tuner company claimed compatibility, only to see Freesat state the opposite; some stores have been caught refusing to sell equipment without installation – so it’s worth explaining exactly what it is, before looking at the technical side of things, and what it means for PC users.

First, there aren’t any new satellites; none of the broadcasters owns their own satellites. The most popular satellite broadcaster in the UK, Sky, rents its transponders from SES Astra, and all the channels you can receive on a Sky box are broadcast from Astra’s cluster of satellites at 28.2 degrees East of due south; the cluster is collectively known as Astra 2.

Freesat not only uses the same cluster, but actually uses the same transmissions – with a couple of exceptions. There’s no ‘Freesat satellite’ or ‘Sky satellite’ – just Astra 2. And that means that if you have a dish that’s presently set up for Sky, it will receive Freesat too. So, what’s actually different? And what’s the point?

Throwing off the shackles

One of the main reasons for the creation of Freesat – and the approval of the idea by the BBC Trust – is to ensure that, after digital switchover, the core BBC and ITV channels are still available, even in those areas that won’t have Freeview coverage. Doesn’t Sky do that already? Well, yes – but Sky’s “Freesat from Sky” option isn’t guaranteed to last forever, and it relies on the proprietary Sky box, and the issuing of cards. By running their own service, on a non-profit basis, the idea is that the main terrestrial broadcasters won’t be entirely in the hands of a competitor – and they’ll be able to launch new services more easily.

That includes services to take advantage of the Ethernet connector that’s mandatory on every Freesat box, and which can be used for a return path on interactive services, and delivering video content via the internet. So, for example, your broadband link could be used for voting in competitions, and to deliver BBC iPlayer content to your TV, via a Freesat box – something that should be available later this year.

It’s the desire to offer features such as that – plus a few other useful extras, like fixed channel numbers, beloved of broadcasters – that means Freesat had to create a box specification of its own, rather than just tell people to use standard ‘free to air’ satellite receivers, which are popular in many other countries. For more about the technical side of the system, check out ‘Inside Freesat’ and for a guide to the basics of wiring up a dish, see ‘Satellite Basics’.

Freesat and your PC

Obviously, what’s appeared in the shops so far is Freesat receivers, but the new service also has some potential implications for people who want to receive satellite TV on their PCs.

One of the most significant is simply the lack of encryption; all the channels on Freesat are broadcast in the clear, and that includes Channel 4 and – from sometime later this year – Channel 5; see www.freesat.co.uk for the full list. Previously, both these channels relied on Sky to provide encryption and regionalisation, and though there were free in the sense that you could use a Sky box with a £20 one-off ‘Freesat from Sky’ card to receive them, a standard PC satellite card wouldn’t be any use (though some Linux-based PVR software could emulate the necessary Sky decryption software, with a card reader). Channel 4 is already broadcasting on Freesat, along with E4 ,More 4 and Film4, and with five coming soon, those who can’t get Freeview but want to build their own PC-based video recorder will find things a lot simpler.

Eagle eyed readers of PCW’s web site will recall Hauppage claiming their satellite product was suitable for receiving Freesat, only for Freesat to claim otherwise. So, what’s the real story?

It’s actually a little in-between. Freesat has a logo, and a specification for their receivers, and a licensing programme. You can’t put the Freesat logo on something, or call it a Freesat receiver, unless it meets their specs – and as explained in the box ‘Inside Freesat’, that includes some elements, like the interactive MHEG software, or software that understands the Freesat broadcast EPG, that you don’t get in the box with a PC tuner.

But, if you put a satellite card in your PC, since all the channels are transmitted as standard DVB free to air broadcasts, you’ll be able to tune into them. You won’t get the red button interactive stuff, and you won’t – usually – get a programme guide, either. But you’ll still be able to watch. It’s not true, as some web sites have claimed, that only Freesat receivers will receive the programmes.

There are a few things to watch out for; for example, at the moment, ITV HD is broadcast as an interactive data stream, rather than a standard channel, so most software may skip past it when you tell it to scan for channels. And since some software comes with tools to grab an EPG from the internet, you won’t need the one that Freesat broadcasts.

At the moment, all you need is a tuner card or USB module that supports the DVB-S (Digital Video Broadcasting – Satellite) standard, but we recommend that you opt for one that can handle DVB-S2 instead, as channels including BBC HD have indicated that they may move to this in the future, since it’s a more efficient way of broadcasting.

And, if you’re prepared to forgo Windows in favour of the Linux-based MythTV media centre package, work’s already underway – thanks to some clever reverse engineering – to decode the Freesat EPG data. It’s also possible to decode some of the interactive elements too – which means that, if the BBC iPlayer on Freesat is delivered as a ‘red button’ MHEG application, it might be possible to make it work on MythTV too. But before you run out an install Myth, it’s important to realise that it’s still very much experimental. According to David Matthews, who created the EPG patches, there’s still quite a lot of work to be done, and there are a lot of rough edges.

High definition

Besides the basic free to air channels, one of the other selling points for Freesat is High Definition, without a subscription. Technically, you could receive BBC HD already, with a standard HD satellite receiver, a PC card (see Satellite TV on your PC), or a subscription-free Sky HD box – but with the latter being fairly expensive outside a contract, the majority of people viewing HD in the UK so far have tended to be Sky subscribers. And that’s one thing that Freesat hopes to change.

That said, so far, the HD offerings are limited to BBC HD (which should have increased from its four hours a day to around nine by the end of the year), and ITV HD which launched with the start of Euro 2008, planning to show selected films and sports events over the summer. Like BBC HD, it uses the H.264 codec, so you’ll need a reasonably powerful PC, or a graphics card with H.264 support to get the best of it.

So far, that’s it as far as HD goes – channel 4’s HD service is still tied to Sky’s encryption, but may appear later, though both broadcasters and Freesat are being cagey about what channels will appear and when, beyond confirming channel five, and that there should be around 200 channels by Christmas. The bulk of those will most likely be ones that you can already pick up with a PC card, simply added to the EPG – the need to co-ordinate some work with Sky means that it can’t be done overnight.

What next?

So far, there aren’t any firm plans for a licensed PC solution for Freesat, but it’s not been ruled out, either. In the meantime, unless you decide to buy one of their official receivers, the most important change that Freesat has brought about for PCW readers is that it’s finally possible to buy a cheap satellite card for your PC, and record all the main five channels, as well as most of their digital spin-offs.

With a little effort and some Linux software like MythTV, it’ll even be possible make your own satellite PVR (see PCW October 2007, pcw.co.uk/2197364), and use an internet EPG to schedule recordings. For those who have to pay Sky £10 a month to record on a subscription free Sky+ box, it’s potentially very attractive. And it’s likely too that at least one of the Freesat PVRs – the Humax, due this autumn – will allow you to transfer standard definition programmes to your PC.

Even if you don’t plan to buy a dedicated Freesat box, one thing’s clear – satellite TV on your PC is now more straightforward in the UK, and that has to be good news.

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