Monday, 22 June 2009

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Today’s Freeview boxes won’t pick up HD

“No, sorry, today’s Freeview boxes won’t pick up HD”. I gave this rather unhelpful comment to a Tesco colleague who is responsible for buying various electronic gadgets such as Freeview set-top boxes.

Our conversation had come about because he wanted to understand more about the forthcoming HD channels that will soon be available through a TV aerial - no doubt called ‘Freeview HD’ when it starts.

The trouble is, I understand that not one Freeview box from any brand sold today, nor any HD TV screen with a built-in Freeview tuner, will be capable of picking up the HD channels.

The buyer was (quite rightly) annoyed because ‘Freeview HD’ will definitely be on air by this next next year, and their marketing will no doubt wish to announce the ability to watch the 2010 Football World Cup in HD through the aerial - an attractive proposition. However customers are buying HD TVs with Freeview built-in right now from Tesco (and all other TV dealers) which won’t be able to pick up any HD signals unaided despite being less than a year old when the World Cup starts.

So why won’t Freeview receivers pick up the new HD signals when they start broadcasting? The answer goes back to 2007 when the BBC ran an HD experiment from London’s Crystal Palace transmitter. They quickly concluded that existing digital transmission standard (a European-agreed format called “Digital Video Broadcasting - Terrestrial” or “DVB-T”) only had the bandwidth to transmit one HD TV channel. Those same DVB-T signals today can carry between 6 and 10 standard definition TV channels each.

So the BBC experiment changed the format to a new transmission standard that allows greater throughput capacity called DVB-T2, and changed the video compression standard from MPEG-2 (also used to compress movies onto the space on a DVD video disc) to a new format called H.264. H.264 is an excellent new compression standard that offers much more profound video compression before picture quality is compromised, and the BBC’s experiment found that combining DVB-T2 and H.264 meant it could carry 4 HD channels with excellent picture and sound quality.

The trouble is, I understand that no consumer Freeview receivers today in Tesco or other mainstream electronics retailers understands DVB-T2 transmissions, and even if they could, would not know how to de-compress the H.264 video in order to display it on the screen.

‘Freeview HD’ boxes will be on the market in the months to come, but we still have to cope with customers whose fairly new HD TVs will be incapable of picking up HD signals unaided when HD broadcasts start. I should point out that all Freeview boxes and Freeview-equipped TVs will still pick up all the standard definition channels now and in the future without problem - it’s only the new HD channels they won’t see.

If you are in the market for a new HD TV but don’t want to pay a subscription yet do want HD channels, you can get this today. You can do as I have, and buy a ‘Freesat’ receiver which picks up the BBC HD and ITV HD channels today as well as most of the Freeview channels (and a few extra ones). TV brand Panasonic has built a Freesat tuner right into its latest TV sets. You will need a satellite dish although an old Sky dish works just fine. Of course if you are happy with paying a subscription for your TV, Sky has an excellent HD offer in Tesco now, and cable customers can get their HD from providers such as Virgin Media.

We’re just left with the ‘irony’ of selling HD TV sets today which are incapable of picking up HD without help. It may not be our fault, but treating customers this way goes against the grain, no matter the great technological reasons why it has had to happen.

This is a salient example of how the rate of technological change is accelerating; after all, TVs built from 1967 can still pick up the analogue signals today unaided until those broadcasts end by 2012. We’ve only had TVs with built-in Freeview for the last 4 years!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

3G Mobile Broadband could cure rural internet woes

I am typing and publishing this entry in the heart of the Cornish countryside about 8 miles inland from Newquay.

The country cottage that myself and husband Brin rented is miles from anywhere - and that's just how we like it. We're here to enjoy a rural break from our urban home in north London and, being mountain bike fans, hurl ourselves around the hills, lakes and woodlands. The fuzzy analogue TV pictures (and non-existent digital terrestrial TV at least until Cornwall experiences the 'digital switchover' in August 2009) allows us just to view enough picture to see that the excellent weather here will continue. 

Still, the occasional blast of technology is good, so I connect an O2 USB data modem 'dongle' to my trusty Macbook Pro and here I am sat in the garden of this remote cottage, surrounded by lambs, cows, and an ancient hill fort -  yet connected to the internet world.


I'd forgotten what 'narrow-band' internet connection actually was. The data dongle is currently reporting that the best connection I have is 42Kbps. In London O2 deals me up to 7 Mbps from the same dongle and at home my router happily reports over 11000Kbps (11Mbps). Quite a difference.

My iPhone experiences similar speeds - mostly standard narrowband (GPRS) in Cornwall outside the towns. In the Cornish towns of Newquay and Wadebridge I do get the '3G' symbol appearing.

I hear of rural communities deploring the fact that they don't get access to broadband, and that the government thinking of solving this by digging up the roads to install fibre cable, seeing as how ADSL doesn't work because the phone connections are too far from the exchange.

Surely the best way would be for the government and cellular phone companies working together to upgrade rural cellular transmitter towers to support 3G (HSDPA - High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and the problem would be solved simply and wirelessly. No roads dug up, far less physical infrastructure to go wrong, and people in transit or on holiday with no access to any wired connection could enjoy broadband speeds as well.

I know that in London (and in HQ in Welwyn Garden City) I get blazing 3G speeds from my same O2 dongle - indeed comparing favourably with my home broadband connection. 

If O2 were given the government incentive to upgrade the cellular transmitter tower I'm connected to right now to 3G, that tower could serve many villages with great broadband internet. Indeed I've looked up on the OFCOM Cellular Tower SiteFinder to discover that the O2 tower I am using is three miles away, north of St.Columb Major, and I'm getting a 4-out-of-5 bar signal sat here. That tower could probably serve a workable 3G/HSDPA 7Mbps signal out to a good 6-to-8 mile radius - that's a lot of rural communities in its zone. If customers helped the signal with a rooftop cellular antenna (my 3G dongle has an antenna socket) it could serve wirelessly out much further.

I talk about O2 for two reasons - firstly I have an O2 3G 'dongle' as I say, and secondly because if O2 did something about this, then magically Tesco Mobile would be able to offer their customers something too... 

It just so happens that I have an unrelated meeting with O2 next week. I think I'll add a subject to the agenda!