Digital TV in Australia

Will Foxtel iQ revolutionise the way we watch TV?

Digital Television Australia Foxtel IQ
Will Foxtel iQ revolutionise the way we watch TV?

Foxtel launched a new digital service called iQ this week that aims to change the way Australians view television.

Foxtel iQ is an enhancement to the Foxtel Digital network that provides subscribers with a set-top box capable of recording up to 60 hours of digital television on its 160GB hard drive. What makes the service unique is the integration with an on-screen electronic program guide (EPG). Rather than just having a page that lists upcoming programs on-screen, iQ allows users to interact with the detailed schedule and select shows to record up to a week in advance. Alternatively, customers can simply set the Series Link function to record every episode of a program on a particular channel.

The service doesn't come cheap though. Foxtel is charging AU$395 for the iQ box itself -- which apparently remains the property of Foxtel -- as well as a installation fee of AU$100 or AU$169.95, the cheaper price for existing Foxtel Digital subscribers. In addition, it will cost another AU$5.95 per month on top of your regular monthly Foxtel Digital package.

Even though it might be pricey, it is a promising sign to see that the industry is coming to grips with personal video recorders (PVRs) in Australia.

However, some broadcasters are still reluctant to jump on board. Only three out of five free-to-air broadcasters allow their digital content to be carried on the Foxtel network. So, while subscribers will be able to use the PVR to record shows on the ABC, SBS and Nine, programming on Seven and Ten is off limits until Foxtel and the remaining two broadcasters can sort out an agreement. However, users can still view the analogue streams from these channels.

Foxtel is not the only company to face hurdles in implementing personal video recording in Australia.

When Microsoft launched its Windows Media Center operating system in Australia last year, a notable exclusion was the EPG. Indeed, all the Media Centers that we've seen - which include models from HP, Toshiba, Acer and Optima -- have their functionality dampened by the lack of a EPG.

While PVRs with EPGs might be experiencing difficulties taking off, it seems Australians are definitely being sold on the idea of free-to-air digital television, which offers benefits such as dramatically improved pictures, clearer sound, widescreen television and multi-channelling.

Over 685,000 digital set-top boxes and integrated televisions are now in Australian homes, according to the latest figures from Digital Broadcasting Australia. Over 40 percent of these were sold in the last year alone.

According to DBA spokesman Tim Keefe, these sales figures have exceeded market expectations. He states that some of the drivers behind take-up of digital television have been retail stores showcasing the benefits of digital technology and increases in widescreen, high-definition programs broadcast by the free-to-air stations.

Flicking through recent electronics catalogues shows that consumers can pick up a standard definition (SD) digital set-top box, which plug in to existing television sets and generally need no extra installation, for around AU$150. These, unlike Foxtel's subscription-based model, only incur the one-off cost of the box. Over the Christmas period, Legend Digital brought its entry-level model down to AU$99. Other models featuring hard disk drives (but lacking EPGs as robust as Foxtel iQ), start at around AU$400.

Does personal video recording appeal to you? Share your experiences with digital television so far. Will Foxtel iQ become as big as Tivo in the US? Please send comments to edit@zdnet.com.au.

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