This article was originally published on RegHardware in November 2009 and has been updated for GoneDigital.
What do I need to receive FreeviewHD?
You’ll need a TV or set top box with the FreeviewHD logo, which involves certification for both the video encoding and the transmission systems, as well as an updated version of the interactive (digital text) engine. Simply having a TV with the ‘HD Ready’ logo is not sufficient. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for the DVB-T2 logo (see below).
When will it be coming to my area?
The first transmissions started at the Crystal Palace and Winter Hill transmitters on December 2nd, 2009. They’ll roll out to other regions as switchover happens, from early 2010 onwards, with a few exceptions. In areas that switched off the analogue signal prior to 2010, HD upgrades to the digital transmitters will happen during 2010. For the full timetable, see this RegHardware article. For details of coverage – in some areas, the HD signal won’t be as strong as the signal for SD channels – check the FreeviewHD postcode database, especially if you’re thinking of buying kit just to get FreeviewHD.
What channels will I receive?
In England, you’ll receive BBC HD, ITV1HD and Channel 4HD. In Scotland, ITV1HD will be replaced by STV HD, while Welsh viewers will receive S4C’s Clirlun channel instead of Channel 4HD. The BBC’s channel is a showcase of HD content (and only HD) from all the corporation’s channels, while the other broadcasters are ‘simulcasting’ – showing identical programmes to the standard definition channel, with a mixture of up-scaled and genuine HD material.
Will my existing ‘HD Ready’ set work?
Not without an external set top box. The ‘HD Ready’ logo just indicates that the screen is capable of showing an HD picture, and that there are sockets that allow you to connect something producing one, like a BluRay player or HD receiver. It does not mean that the tuner or decoder is the set is capable of understanding HD signals – there’s a separate (and seldom seen) ‘HD TV’ logo for that. For more on that, see this Gone Digital article.
So have I been mis-sold?
If you can be certain that someone sold you an ‘HD Ready’ set and told you it would receive Freeview HD when it launched, then maybe, but you’ll probably have a hard job proving it. The ‘HD Ready’ logo was defined in 2005, so sales assistants should know what it means by now, and it’s been clear for almost two years which technology the UK would use to receive HD – and that it ruled out equipment designed for HD in other countries. If you simply assumed that ‘HD Ready’ meant a TV would receive FreeviewHD when it happened, you’re out of luck; the label never meant that, and was never intended to mean that.
When will FreeviewHD products be available?
They’re in the shops now, though so far in fairly limited quantities. But most major TV manufacturers have included FreeviewHD in their 2010 ranges, and there will be around a dozen different set top boxes on sale by the middle of this year, including some with built in hard disks for recording.
What about ‘product X’ – the advert and specs say it can receive terrestrial HD?
There are some tuners for PCs, set top boxes and a few TVs which claim in their specs to receive terrestrial HD. However, unless a box specifically says that it supports ‘DVB-T2’ or has the FreeviewHD logo, it is probably not compatible with the HD broadcasts in the UK. As a rule, no products sold before the spring of 2010 will be compatible, though they should work with terrestrial HD broadcasts in France and a few other countries.
If an advert says a product works with freeview HD but has neither FreeviewHD nor DVB-T2 logos, the most charitable interpretation is that they mean “free to view HD terrestrial broadcasts in countries using DVB-T.”
What technologies are being used for HD in the UK?
Two technologies were introduced to UK terrestrial broadcasting for FreeviewHD. The first is the H.264 (aka AVC, or MPEG4 part 10) video codec. This can be used for both HD and SD pictures, and is much more efficient than the MPEG2 codec used at the moment. H.264 is already used for satellite HD services, and for terrestrial HD in other countries.
The second technology is called DVB-T2, which is a brand new transmission method, which the UK is the first country to deploy. It’s this that means that older equipment will not be able to tune into the FreeviewHD service, as all previous terrestrial products use DVB-T, rather than DVB-T2.
Why are we the only people using DVB-T2?
We’re the first, but other countries are planning to roll it out too. The NorDig group, which sets specs for the Nordic countries, has drawn up a common receiver specification based on DVB-T2. Finland will be launching several HD services this year, while Serbia and Slovakia are both also planning DVB-T2 networks.
Can an existing receiver be upgraded?
No. DVB-T2 isn’t a question of firmware. It requires compliant tuner modules, which receive the broadcasts and feed the transport stream data to the rest of the system. It’s much more complex than DVB-T, and as the tuners use dedicated silicon, they can’t be upgraded. A DVB-T tuner won’t make any sense of a DVB-T2 signal, no matter what software the rest of the system has.
The H.264 codec requires new hardware too, in most cases (other than general purpose PCs). Set top boxes rely on custom decoding hardware to do the hard work at a reasonable price, and most current ones just understand MPEG2 at standard definition.
What about using the CI slot on a digital TV?
It’s not very practical. A French company called Neotion has made modules that can convert H.264 to MPEG2 in a CAM, but the use of DVB-T2 means you’d need almost a whole set top box in the CAM. Controlling a CAM via your TV’s menus isn’t very straightforward, and may not be possible without an upgrade to the TV’s firmware anyway, as most sets only expect to use the CAM for encrypted channels. Some older sets will only have an SD MPEG2 decoder, so still wouldn’t be able to show HD pictures this way.
Why not use the same standard as everywhere else?
To make HD practical on terrestrial television, using H.264 is essential, unless lots of other channels are turned off to make room. Lots of existing sets made for the European market would work if we used H.264 with DVB-T, but even more wouldn’t, as they lack any HD tuner or decoder at all – only some sets made in the last couple of years would cope, so many people would need to upgrade anyway.
With DVB-T2 providing much more bandwidth, in the longer term it’s likely that a change to that standard would happen anyway. Launching HD now, and then using the new transmission technology later would force many people to upgrade twice in a short time, once for H.264 and then again for DVB-T2.
By linking the two upgrades together, the intention is to ensure that once you do buy into FreeviewHD, you won’t have to upgrade again for a long time – we will have the most technically advanced terrestrial TV system in the world.
What’s so special about DVB-T2?
DVB-T2 provides around 50% extra carrying capacity than DVB-T, in terms of bandwidth for programmes. It’s also much more robust than its predecessor, so less prone to interference. The extra capacity means that more channels can be broadcast in the same amount of spectrum, or additional bandwidth allocated to channels, enabling services such as HD.
Does this mean my existing equipment is obsolete?
No. Only one of the six multiplexes in the UK is converting to DVB-T2, and all the others will continue broadcasting DVB-T with MPEG2 pictures, for the foreseeable future. You will be able to continue watching the existing Freeview channels, and you only need to invest in new equipment if you want to watch HD services.
Will more channels move to the new technologies in future?
It’s possible, and during the downtime of the HD channels, they may sublet capacity to other channels, perhaps SD ones using H.264 video. But we’d consider it very unlikely that all the current DVB-T/MPEG2 transmissions will cease much before the 2020s; the BBC won’t be in a rush to disenfranchise viewers, and the operators of the commercial multiplexes won’t switch over until they can convince their customers (the channels they carry) that they won’t lose out on audiences by switching to DVB-T2/H.264.
Yes, in the long term, all the multiplexes will probably move to DVB-T2 and H.264, even for SD. But like we said, don’t expect it any time soon. By the time it does happen, it’s likely that most equipment on sale will include the necessary technologies anyway.