HOME Technology Nov 2006
Digital TV expanding
Freeview and internet add to mix

Affordable higher speed internet, the arrival of free-to-air digital TV and partnerships between internet companies and content providers, are about to open up a bold new vista for home entertainment.

A major battle is being fought over who’ll programme the content we watch as we migrate from old analogue TV sets to widescreen digital monitors, subscribe to broadband and upgrade to DVD recorders and ‘media centre’ PCs.

The tools are now there to mix and match own home entertainment from a multitude of sources beyond the traditional TV model, and broadcasters and telecommunications providers are gearing up to meet that challenge.

While Sky TV has been digital for several years, the free to air channels operating as the Freeview consortium, are about to launch their own digital offerings. The government has granted TVNZ, Canwest, Radio New Zealand and Maori TV free access to frequencies to migrate to digital from April 2007, although initially they’re likely to do little more than replicate existing analogue channels.

Freeview will operate from the recently launched Optus D1 satellite and a terrestrial based digital network will also be developed over the next 18 months covering most of the country. Viewers will need a UHF aerial or satellite dish and a $200 decoder box to get access to digital channels.

Sky TV will also use the new satellite capacity to expand beyond its 90 plus channels, including pay-per-view, sport, gambling, movies and radio stations, delivering greater image stability than at present. The government expects 37 percent of viewers will be on digital free-to-air and 61 percent on pay television by 2015.

And the revolution will take another spin as unbundling enables speedier broadband access without the dreaded data caps that have previously made it impossibly expensive to deliver TV and movies over the internet.

Telecom has been talking about this for some years, engaging in trials of IPTV with Microsoft and Sky TV, to selected areas that have fibre to the curb or DSL2 (up to 14Mbit/sec speeds) over copper.

Many ISPs already offer local TV news, music videos and short films, and users can legally download hundreds of TV programmes from offshore to their hard disks. So far though there are no local outlets for downloading movies or TV over the internet.

The possibilities are wide open for rich content to be commercially downloaded or streamed to users and Orcon Internet seems intent on proving that with a free streaming service. The country’s fourth largest provider, is first off the block with big content, streaming music channel Alt TV free, 24 hours a day.

Meanwhile Sky TV is currently investing $50 million transferring its archive of content from magnetic tape to computer disk. TVNZ is doing the same. They’re both involved with Telecom’s trials of Microsoft IPTV and are looking at set top boxes that will enable customers to have access to all these services. That could include calling up archived material on demand from both Sky and TVNZ’s digital libraries, and possibly the New Zealand Film Archive. This might be viewed on a pay per view basis.

The question remains, how many set top boxes and devices will you need beside your TV if you want to have Sky’s MySky decoder (60 hours of storage), Freeview and broadband internet channels as well as a stand-alone DVD recorder or PC-based media centre?

The other challenge has to do with the high definition standard now being deployed around the world and the compatibility of existing home entertainment equipment with this future mode of broadcasting due here in 2008.

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