It’s not really that long since Digital Switchover completed in the UK, but on the 16th of January 2014 we saw the beginning of the end for the first generation of the Freeview platform.
What’s happened? Al Jazeera Arabic. In itself, that might seem fairly unremarkable; it’s not the first non-english service, as there are already channels on the platform that cater to Welsh and Gaelic speakers. But this is the first standard definition broadcast channel that won’t be available to people who have original Freeview kit. And I’m willing to bet that it won’t be the last, either.
When Freeview originally launched, it used the DVB-T transmission standard, and the MPEG2 picture encoding. Both were the obvious choice at the time, and it’s still very easy to buy a TV – even one claiming to be ‘HD Ready’ – that is capable of receiving nothing else. There is a lot of this kit in UK homes, some of it bought specifically because switchover was coming.
Meanwhile, technology marched on, and Freeview HD launched, using the more modern and efficient DVB-T2 for transmission and MPEG4/H.264 for encoding. By and large, unless you wanted HD pictures, you didn’t need to worry about that – and the HD that’s available is a simulcast of existing SD services. By not having equipment that copes with the newer standards, you’re not missing out on any actual programmes, just better picture quality. Or at least, you weren’t, until this month.
The new channel is running on one of the new ‘temporary’ multiplexes that were set up last year. These have so far been used to provide extra HD services, like BBC Four HD, and Al Jazeera’s main news service in HD. I wrote in February last year that these were a stalking horse for, effectively, a second digital switchover.
Ofcom is keen (like the government in general) to sell anything it can. And that includes the spectrum presently used for TV broadcasting. The extra HD channels aren’t just because they’re feeling kind and fluffy. They’re because they want us all to have equipment that is capable of receiving DVB-T2/H.264, because ultimately, when they take away some of the spectrum that’s used for TV now, and sell it to spivs running mobile networks, the only way Freeview can maintain the level of service that it has – let alone add anything more – is by a wholesale switch to those newer standards, including for standard definition channels.
The only people who will be able to watch Al Jazeera Arabic on Freeview are those who have HD capable receivers, with DVB-T2 and H.264, even though it’s an SD only channel. Given the minority interest, most people probably won’t bat an eyelid at this. But make no mistake, this is the beginning of the end for your first generation Freeview kit.
That kit may not be as old as you think, either: a quick look at some online retailers today shows a fair bit of kit, especially at the smaller screen sizes, that still lacks a Freeview HD tuner, which means that it won’t pick up Al Jazeera Arabic, or any later channels using the same technology. More than ever, if you’re buying new kit, if you want to continue to receive terrestrial broadcasts in the UK, it’s essential it’s able to receive Freeview HD, because you’ll increasingly need the same technology for SD channels too.