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BBC to offer High Definition TV

Cable and satellite viewers can tune in next year

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Certified gadget obsessives Tech Digest and Shiny Shiny scour Gizmoville for the oddest digital goodies, Bayraider keeps tabs on the best and worst of eBay and HDTVUK charts the latest High Definition TV news.

The BBC has confirmed that it is to offer High Definition TV to satellite and cable viewers at some point during 2006. It will also start what it is billing as ‘limited technical trials' of HD over digital terrestrial, (Freeview) but acknowledges that there won't be the bandwidth to offer HD to consumers in this format until the digital switchover, which starts in 2008 and finishes in 2012, is completed.

Cable and satellite viewers will be able to see highlights of BBC ONE's peaktime schedule in high definition. The corporation is apparently in talks with the operators to secure this. The terrestrial trial will run in the London area at the same time and apparently won’t affect reception of existing Freeview channels. The BBC hopes to provide a limited number of HD set top box receivers to triallists.

Director of Television, Jana Bennett, will outline the BBC's vision for future free-to-air high definition television when she takes part in an industry event in London tonight. She said: "High definition may take time to grow in Britain, but as with the other technologies we helped to build, the BBC wants to prepare now to be able to deliver the benefits of HD to all its licence payers in the long term."

The BBC's HDTV announcement won’t surprise anyone in the TV industry. The BBC has been making series like Rome and Bleak House in High Definition for several years now largely to sell to the US and Far eastern markets. All it needed was a platform to parade its HD footage in the UK.

Offering its HD services via satellite is also something of a no brainer for the BBC. It can lease space on the Astra satellite (as used by Sky) and then broadcast the signals with any owner of a Sky HD box able to receive the transmissions.

Newly merged NTL and Telewest is expected to offer HD at some point during 2006. Although it is not clear if it will deliver the signals via existing TV-oriented cable technology or offer it via IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) in which the signals are delivered by an ultra fast (at 8Mbps) broadband connection to a set top box.

The disappointing part for the BBC is that by offering its services via satellite it is likely to strengthen Sky’s position as a key provider of HDTV for the UK. Sky is likely to launch its HD service for consumers in the spring with its own sports and movie channels supported by broadcasters that may include Discovery and MTV. For viewers with no access to cable the only way to see BBC HD will be via satellite.

In announcing the trials of HDTV over digital terrestrial the BBC is doing little more than dipping its tow in the water. Realistically it won't be able to deliver HDTV over digital terrestrial nationwide until 2012, by which time other distribution systems such as satellite, cable and broadband will be available to most Britons.

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