'Free' digital TV arrives this week

The BBC and BSkyB's successor to ITV Digital will launch on Wednesday, aiming to make digital television accessible to a broader audience

The BBC and its broadcasting partner, Crown Castle, will quietly launch what is intended to be a new chapter in digital television on Wednesday, in the form of Freeview -- the successor to the failed ITV Digital.

The Freeview service, available through digital terrestrial television (DTT) adapters, will be the first time viewers will have access to a wide range of digital television programming without needing to pay a subscription fee. The service will offer some interactive functions such as the ability to display background information about players in a sporting event.

It is an important step in the government's plans to increase digital television takeup to the point where analogue signals can be turned off, and the valuable spectrum resold.

"The exciting thing about this is that for the first time, all the (free) digital channels will be there, plus radio, as a free service," said BBC spokesman John Ashworth. "A number of people have been interested in expanding their viewing options, but they haven't gone digital yet because they don't want pay TV. This is a good opportunity for Freeview to increase its audience."

The service launches at 6 a.m. with 12 radio stations and more than 20 television channels available, including Sky News, BBC Choice and all the analogue terrestrial channels. Some viewers may not be able to receive ITV and Channel 4 channels, however, because Crown Castle has switched to a stronger broadcast signal while ITV stayed with the weaker signal it used for ITV Digital.

The service will be immediately available to up to 2 million households with the old ITV Digital set-top boxes, although these will need to be retuned. The BBC, Crown Castle and BSkyB, who are all backing Freeview, hope that manufacturing partners will be able to sell up to one million more Freeview adapters by Christmas.

Pace was the first to bring out an adapter specifically designed for Freeview, and is estimated to have sold about 100,000. Some manufacturers have said they play to sell more advanced boxes which combine Freeview with Internet capabilities.


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