Freeview HD will deliver new IPTV channels this month

Mysteries of the >100 data channels revealed

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Exclusive Dozens of new television channels are coming to Freeview this month, thanks to clever use of the MHEG standard and the connectivity already built into every Freeview HD box.

The channels are already appearing on Freeview boxes – at 110, 111 and 120 in the EPG – but rather than broadcasting video streams those channels contain only MHEG applications. Come the end of September those applications will allow viewers to select from dozens of specialist channels accessed over the internet connection mandated by the Freeview HD standard.

The idea is to bring streaming video to every Freeview HD box in the country, and charge for it too. The system already being deployed allows for subscription channels, and there's the potential (and intention) to provide video-on-demand services in the future.

The channels are being delivered by Vision IPTV, a London-based television packaging company that's been managing content for the satellite industry for the last six years or so. The streaming technology comes from another UK start-up, called Slipstream, which put together the servers and content management systems which allow Vision to collect revenue as well as deliver video.

Those companies only employ around 60 people between them (Slipstream being responsible for a tenth of that), but reckon they can ease the transition towards internet video by offering streamed channels delivered to existing Freeview boxes while we're still waiting for our YouView boxes to come along.

The delivery, along with the applications to browse and request it, is accomplished using MHEG-5. MHEG was designed for laying out Digital Text pages (the Red button on BBC channels) but was recently extended to include control of video streams under the title MHEG-IC (Interaction Channel). It's already being used by the latest set-top incarnation of the BBC's iPlayer, which recently popped up on the TVOnics boxes, among others.

Vision takes that one stage further by inserting a new channel (or three) into the Freeview EPG which, when selected, checks if the box has an internet connection and then presents the viewer with a menu of available channels which can be served over an IP stream. Some of those channels will be free, but others will require the user to sign up – using a website, as Vision reckons entering credit-card details though a TV remote is a non-starter.

So later this month if you switch to channel 110 (moniker'ed "Vision"), you'll be presented with a choice of languages and a list of channels from various regions. These will include Polish and Greek channels initially, with a dozen more categories to follow. Each category leads to a selection of regional-interest channels which can be streamed live to the TV, though a password will be needed the first time a subscription channel is viewed.

Channel 111, named "Connect" and coming online in a few months, will apparently link to a selection of Lifestyle, Health and Wellbeing channels, while Channel 112 ("Stream") will initially lead to a single sports channel.

None of those channels are using up significant space on the Freeview multiplexes. Channels numbered above 100 are being used as data channels, and are thus allocated a fraction of the bandwidth needed to broadcast video.

Not that Vision sees itself as a competitor to Freeview HD, pointing out that even the BBC's iPlayer can't deliver real High Definition. Indeed, while earlier versions of iPlayer claim programmes are "Also available in HD", the more-recent incarnations simply offer "Higher Quality for Fast Connections": a semantic, but significant, difference. Freeview HD broadcast remains the highest quality picture, for purists.

Nor does Vision see itself competing with YouView, the cross-provider hardware implementation of iPlayer that is supposed to be here by now. YouView's plan is to aggregate the biggest content providers into a single VoD platform requiring only one new set-top box. Vision wants to deliver specialist streams to small audiences using IPTV, or VoD, using the box they already have.

Where Vision would like to see itself is in Local TV. The government is very keen to get Local TV up and running, as part of the Big Society among other things, but doing so on Vision's platform would be cheaper and quicker to deploy than existing plans:

"We believe we offer the must sensible, and commercially viable, solution to {Local TV] provision," the company's MD told us, saying that Vision has reached out to the Ministry of Fun to offer its services, though without any useful response just yet.

The Ministry is committed to pouring money into Local TV, spending £25m of the BBC's licence fee to build a national transmission network that will only reach half the UK's population. Apparently that's necessary to keep access on the Freeview platform, and thus available to all.

A system like Vision could provide the same thing for a good deal less money, while keeping the radio spectrum free for the White Spaces enthusiasts and allowing people to watch Local TV they're interested in rather than that which is available where they happen to be.

Mostly Vision is also another demonstration of how difficult it has been to get internet content onto a TV screen. Video-on-demand services have been available for computers for years, but most people prefer to watch a TV screen and the much-awaited convergence is taking a lot longer than expected.

Televisions, and set-top boxes, might have YouTube clients, but very few of them will play copy-protected content (it even mysteriously vanishes from Favourite lists when one switches between clients). Companies such as LoveFilm have managed to convince manufacturers to embed clients into some devices, but support is patchy. BlueRay Live promised to deliver streamed content on demand, but such applications are limited to a few pornographic companies.

MHEG is a true standard, and one mandated by Freeview HD, so any box carrying that logo should be able to use Vision's new service. Users still need to connect their set-top boxes to the internet, but that's a smaller step than buying a new box entirely – and Vision is optimistic that it's a step the majority of owners will take. ®

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