Surrounded by questions

As some of you may have seen, a short news piece by me was published today on Register Hardware. With only three hundred words, it had of necessity to be somewhat brief, and with an eye catching headline.

The big question – or suggestion – from that article is “Was the technical side of Freeview HD rushed, to reach a marketing deadline of the World Cup?” In actual fact, I think things are a fair bit more complicated than that, and some decisions had to be taken quite some time ago, which all combined to bring us to the current state.

For example, broadcasters decided that they were going to use the AAC audio system, because of a need to support Audio Description. It seems to have been realised that this would cause problems, specifically with the inability to transcode to Dolby Digital for domestic AV systems, and the resulting fudge is that the first wave of equipment has to output only PCM stereo, while transcoding is merely “encouraged.”

Freeview say this is because manufacturers were unable to commit to it, and certainly some of the larger firms tell me that they had planned things like which chipsets would be forming the basis of their 2010 ranges long enough in advance that accommodating the output of 5.1 channel audio would not have been possible.

From a marketing perspective, of course, the World Cup is probably too good an opportunity to miss for a new platform like Freeview HD, just as the Olympics were a great way of promoting Freesat. And marketing people are not generally known for their willingness to point out the limitations of the things they’re flogging.

All in the specs

As I’ve written before, some equipment can be updated to provide multi-channel output, while others can’t. And I’ve now been informed that transcoding to Dolby Digital will indeed be mandatory for Freeview equipment in future; the requirement appears in Version 1.7 of the DTG’s ‘receiver recommendations’ which is a summary of what UK digital TV kit is supposed to do. Version 1.7 is dated the 19th of May 2010, so obviously very new. The previous change to audio requirements was in version 1.5, from April 2009, which appears to suggest that receivers should output multi-channel audio via HDMI, though it’s clear that some does not. (Thanks to Peter Clare for archive copies of the document).

Those receiver recommendations aren’t the final say on the matter, however – that’s a DTG document called the D-Book. The latest version includes the requirement for mandatory transcoding when sending audio via S/PDIF, and for either transcoding or multi-channel PCM audio when sending it via HDMI.

The DTG is, incidentally, the trade association for digital TV in the UK. It’s made up of broadcasters and manufacturers, and they also operate the testing scheme that allows equipment to be certified as Freeview HD compliant. To get the D-Book you have to join the DTG, which costs a lot of money; it’s effectively unavailable to the public (or to journalists).

Jam tomorrow?

So, when does the new spec come in? All equipment launched after April 2011 will have mandatory transcoding, I’m told. Panasonic tells me that it will be a feature in their 2011 model range, and I’m waiting to hear from other manufacturers about their products. I’d expect them to say pretty much the same, since most announce their range early in the new year.

That date of April 2011 has only come to light after quite a lot of questions and chasing people up. Without seeing the D-Book, or pestering people in the know, you wouldn’t find out. You certainly wouldn’t find out from the Freeview HD site, which happily touts surround sound as one of the benefits of the service.

In fact, it’s not just surround sound which is touted as a Freeview HD feature that you might not actually receive if you don’t buy the right equipment. Tucked away in Schedule 4 of the Freeview HD Manufacturer’s Licence, which is a public document, is the information that supporting audio description with ‘advanced codecs’ – which means the ones used on the HD services – isn’t mandatory in equipment tested before the start of next year. So that’s another feature that actually might not be available in some of the kit that on sale now.

More surreally, it means that a situation has arisen whereby the broadcasters have chosen a system to deliver surround sound, in order to support Audio Description, while manufacturers may be happily ignoring the desirability of offering full support for either in products that they launch this year. Not having been aware of this when I did my group test for Register Hardware, I wasn’t able to verify whether or not AD worked on those boxes, but it’s certainly another twist to the tale.

Even next year, when the D-Book specification will mandate that equipment does transcode multi-channel audio to Dolby Digital (or DTS) for output to home AV equipment, there will still be kit on sale that was approved beforehand. How, exactly, are consumers supposed to know which kit does what, when they just have a single ‘Freeview HD’ brand?

I’d really like to know the answer, and I hope that it goes beyond “Well, reviewers can always test kit and make a list.”

And finally…

There’s plenty more to come on this subject, it seems – and the points above obviously raise just as many questions as they provide answers. There’ll be a comment from the BBC’s perspective in a blog on their site quite soon, and I’ll provide a link here.

Overall, I suspect that some may feel this is all rather downbeat for Freeview HD. It certainly isn’t ideal, but on the whole I do think Freeview HD is a good service. I’m pleased that transcoding will become mandatory for Freeview HD, but I also think it’s a great shame that this information wasn’t made more widely available before some people went out and spent their money on equipment to watch the World Cup in HD.

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