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Free BBC HD satellite TV service given green light

Sky alternative to launch 2008

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The BBC has been given the go-ahead to partner with ITV to launch a free-to-view digital TV service transmitted by satellite. The service will include HD programming.

The BBC currently sends out all its channels via satellite in an unencrypted form. Satellite broadcaster Sky offers more than a hundred other channels free of charge, but requires customers buy its set-top box to decode them.

The free service the BBC and ITV are planning would allow viewers to tune into a wider range of channels by buying a one-off set-top box or a TV with an integrated tuner, and having a dish installed. It would replicate the terrestrial digital service, Freeview, but make use of the greater bandwidth to deliver more channels and HD programming.

Right now, HD on Freeview is considered too hard to do, and most broadcasters are waiting for the end of analogue transmissions to free up bandwidth that can be used for HD. Broadcasters are lobbying regulator Ofcom to free up spectrum to allow them to transmit HD programming sooner.

The BBC recently proposed an alternative way of using Freeview to transmit HD content by using spatial multiplexing techniques - the same used to accelerate mobile phone download speeds and the basis for high-speed 802.11n Wi-Fi - to boost Freeview's available bandwidth. However, much more testing is required before such a system could be put into service.

Some Britons are in areas into which Freeview currently can't be broadcast because the signal is too weak to reach them. The satellite service is seen by the BBC and ITV as a way to bring free-to-air digital TV to these viewers.

Dubbed Freesat - the same name, incidentally, as Sky's free package - the service is set to go live in Spring 2008.

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