Freeview HD rollout has been accelerated so that viewers in London, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham receive signals by the end of March 2010, writes Adrian Pennington.
However receivers, whether integrated digital TVs or new STBs, will not be available until the new year as manufacturers have yet to finalise their production plans.
It's hoped that half of the UK's 9.9m DTT-enabled households (those which have Freeview as their primary set) will be able to receive the new service by the time of the World Cup in June, although Richard Lindsay-Davies, Digital TV Group director-general won't be drawn on actual take-up of Freeview HD receivers.
"The run in to the World Cup is a period of enormous consumer buy-in, but it doesn't make sense to run promotional campaigns for Freeview HD, even regionally, without at least half of UK households covered," he said.
The majority of viewers will come into coverage at the same time that they go through digital switchover - including viewers in Manchester in December 2009 and those in Cardiff, who will get Freeview HD by the end of March 2010. For the 7% of the UK population who switched before December 2009, a retrofit programme will bring them into coverage before the end of November 2010.
The rollout will deliver an increase in capacity of 67% to the BBC's Multiplex B, creating the space needed for the HD transmissions (and other advanced services like iPlayer) of the BBC and commercial PSBs. This improvement comes on top of the 50% capacity saving that comes from the adoption of MPEG-4 in place of MPEG-2.
The BBC and ITV together with UTV, STV and Channel TV, Channel 4 and S4C, and Five have all been awarded channel slots on the Freeview HD service with BBC HD and ITV HD live from launch, C4 shortly afterwards and Five to follow next year.
Ofcom is holding in reserve an option to allocate a fifth HD slot following rollout. "All the mathematical models and simulations suggest that coverage will be fine therefore Ofcom has set a quite aggressive mode of 36Mbps," said Lindsay-Davies. "If coverage is impacted then we could revert to 40Mbps which will enable a slightly wider coverage but deny a fifth slot. We may see an additional mux move to T2 at some point and launch additional HD channels."
In accordance with its renewed policy of syndicating iPlayer to multiple platforms and devices the BBC is about to launch iPlayer on Freesat with a planned launch on Freeview HD next year, "ideally to coincide with consumer promotion of Freeview HD," said Lindsay-Davies.
"That is separate to the DTG's work on specifications for the connected TV environment (relevant to Canvas and HBBtv). Delivering iPlayer to Freeview HD is an evolutionary step whereas connected TV's are a much bigger step-change providing for the wider global availability of streamed services like YouTube. It's unlikely Freeview HD will ever be able to view those."