Everything You Want To Know About Freesat

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A Long Read But Everything You Want To Know About Freesat

For many years, satellite television in the UK has been synonymous with one company: * Rupert Murdoch’s Sky.

And because of encryption contracts and proprietary software, anyone hoping to record television programmes on a media PC has been out of luck, with some main channels such as Channel 4 locked up using Sky’s encryption system.

However, all that changed in May with the launch of Freesat, a new service backed by the BBC and ITV that promises free channels * including all five terrestrial services * free high-definition content and easy-to-use features such as an electronic programme guide (EPG).

But beyond all the fanfare that surrounded Sky’s first ‘free to air’ competition, what has really changed with the launch of Freesat and, more importantly for PCW readers, does the new service mean that satellite reception on the PC is a more practical proposition than it has been in the past?

In this feature, we’ll look at what Freesat really is, and find out how it’s changed not just standard TV viewing, but also the landscape for PC owners who are thinking about using their computers to record and watch digital television. For a deeper look at the practicalities of receiving Freesat on a PC, take a look at this Hands On Performance column.

Amid all the publicity Freesat received when it launched, there has been some confusion. For example, one PC satellite tuner company claimed compatibility, only to have Freesat state the opposite; some stores have been caught refusing to sell equipment without installation, so it’s worth explaining exactly what it is before looking at the technical side of things, and what it means for PC users.

First, there aren’t any new satellites; none of the broadcasters own one. The most popular satellite broadcaster in the UK, Sky, rents its transponders from SES Astra, and all the channels you can receive on a Sky box are broadcast from Astra’s cluster of satellites at 28.2° east of due south; the cluster is collectively known as Astra 2.

Freesat not only uses the same cluster, but also the same transmissions * with a couple of exceptions. There’s no ‘Freesat satellite’ or ‘Sky satellite’ * just Astra 2. That means if you have a dish set up for Sky, it will also receive Freesat. So, what’s different? And what’s the point?

Throwing off the shackles
One of the main reasons for the creation of Freesat * and the approval of the idea by the BBC Trust * is to ensure that after the switchover to digital-only transmissions, the core BBC and ITV channels are still available, even in areas that won’t have terrestrial Freeview coverage.

But doesn’t Sky do that already? Well, yes, but Sky’s ‘Freesat from Sky’ service isn’t guaranteed to last forever, and relies on the proprietary Sky box and the issuing of access cards.

By running Freesat on a non-profit basis, the idea is that the main terrestrial broadcasters won’t be entirely in the hands of a competitor * and will be able to launch new services more easily. That includes services to take advantage of the Ethernet RJ-45 connector that’s mandatory on every Freesat box: this can be used for a return path on interactive services and for delivering video content via the internet.

So, for example, your broadband link could be used for voting in competitions and to deliver BBC iPlayer content to your TV, via a Freesat box, which is something that should be available later this year.

It’s the desire to offer features such as these * plus a few other extras such as fixed channel numbers, beloved of broadcasters * that means Freesat had to create a box specification of its own, rather than just tell people to use standard ‘free to air’ satellite receivers, which are popular in many other countries. For more about the technical side of the system, check out ‘Inside Freesat’ below.

Freesat and your PC
Obviously, what has appeared in the shops so far is Freesat receivers, but the new service also has some potential implications for those who want to receive satellite TV on their PCs.
One of the most significant is simply the lack of encryption; all the channels on Freesat are broadcast in the clear, including Channel 4 and * from sometime later this year * Channel 5; see the Freesat website for the full list.

Previously, both these channels relied on Sky to provide encryption and regionalisation and, although they were free in the sense that you could use a Sky box with a £20 one-off ‘Freesat from Sky’ card to receive them, a standard PC satellite card wouldn’t be any use (although some Linux-based PVR software could emulate the necessary Sky decryption software with a card reader).

Channel 4 is now broadcasting on Freesat, along with E4, More4 and Film4, and with Five coming soon, those who can’t get Freeview but want to build their own PC-based video recorder will find that doing so has become a lot simpler.

Eagle-eyed readers of PCW’s website will recall Hauppauge claiming its satellite product was suitable for receiving Freesat, only for Freesat to claim otherwise. So, what’s the story? It’s actually a little in between.

Freesat has a logo, and a specification for its receivers and a licensing programme. You can’t put the Freesat logo on something, or call it a Freesat receiver, unless it meets the specifications * and as explained in ‘Inside Freesat’ below, that includes some elements such as the interactive MHEG software, or software that understands the Freesat broadcast EPG, which you don’t get in the box with a PC tuner.

But if you put a satellite card in your PC, since all the channels are transmitted as standard DVB-S free-to-air broadcasts, you’ll be able to tune into them. You won’t get the ‘red button’ interactive stuff or, usually, the programme guide either. However, you’ll still be able to watch them. It’s not true, as some websites have claimed, that only Freesat receivers will receive the programmes.

There are a few things to be aware of. For example, at the moment, ITV HD is broadcast as an interactive data stream, rather than as a standard channel, so most software may skip past it when you tell it to scan for channels (see 'ITV HD on your PC' below for details). And since some software comes with tools to grab an EPG from the internet, you won’t need the one that Freesat broadcasts.

At the moment, all you need is a tuner card or USB module that supports the DVB-S (Digital Video Broadcasting * Satellite) standard, but we recommend you opt for one that can handle the newer DVB-S2 standard instead, as channels including BBC HD have indicated that they may move to this in future since it’s a more efficient way of broadcasting.

And if you’re prepared to forgo Windows in favour of the Linux-based MythTV media centre package, work’s already under way * thanks to some clever reverse engineering * to decode the Freesat EPG data. It’s also possible to decode some of the interactive elements, which means if the BBC iPlayer on Freesat is delivered as a ‘red button’ MHEG application, it might be possible to make it work on MythTV too.

But before you install MythTV, it’s important to realise that Freesat support is still experimental. According to David Matthews, who created the EPG patches, there’s quite a lot of work to be done and there are a lot of rough edges.

High definition
Besides the basic free-to-air channels, one of the other selling points for Freesat is high definition (HD) without a subscription. Technically, you can now receive BBC HD with a standard HD satellite receiver, a PC Card (see our 'Satellite TV through your PC' feature) or a subscription-free Sky HD box. But with the latter being fairly expensive without a contract, the majority of people viewing HD in the UK have tended to be Sky subscribers. And that’s one thing Freesat hopes to change.
That said, the HD offerings are limited to BBC HD, which should have increased from its four hours a day to around nine by the end of the year, and ITV HD, which launched with the start of Euro 2008 and is planning to show selected films and sports events over summer.

Like BBC HD, it uses the H.264 codec, so you’ll need a powerful PC or a graphics card with H.264 support to get the best out of it.

That’s it as far as HD goes * Channel 4’s HD service is still tied to Sky’s encryption, but may appear later, but both broadcasters and Freesat are being cagey about what channels will appear and when (beyond confirming Five), and there should be around 200 channels by Christmas 2008.

The bulk are likely to be ones you can pick up with a PC Card, added to the EPG * the need to co-ordinate some work with Sky means it can’t be done overnight.

What next?
So far, there aren’t any firm plans for a licensed PC solution for Freesat, but it has not been ruled out either. In the meantime, unless you buy one of the official receivers, the most important change that Freesat has brought about for PCW readers is that it’s finally possible to buy a cheap satellite card for your PC and record all the main five channels, as well as most of their digital spin-offs.

With a little effort and Linux software like MythTV, it will even be possible make your own satellite PVR, and use an internet EPG to schedule recordings.

For those who have to pay Sky £10 a month to record on a subscription-free Sky+ box, it’s potentially very attractive. And it’s likely too that at least one of the Freesat PVRs * probably the Humax model, due this autumn * will allow you to transfer standard-definition programmes across to your PC.

Even if you don’t plan to buy a dedicated Freesat box, one thing’s clear * satellite TV on your PC is now much more straightforward in the UK, and that has to be good news.

ITV HD on your PC
Since ITV HD isn’t broadcast as a channel, but as an H.222 data stream, you may need to tune it manually in your PC’s tuner software. These are the details you’ll need: Eurobird 1, Frequency 11426 Horizontal, Service ID 10510, Video PID 3401, Audio PID 3402, PMT PID 3400, PCR PID 3401. See this Hands On Performance article for more details of suitable DVB-S cards.

Satellite basics
If you have a satellite dish already and want to add a PC Card or Freesat receiver, it’s not quite as straightforward as splitting a terrestrial TV aerial.

At the end of your satellite dish arm is the Low Noise Block downconverter, or LNB. This shifts the frequencies of broadcasts, then sends them along the cable to the tuner in the receiver. And, unlike a TV aerial, it’s not passive; it has to be set to high or low band, and vertical or horizontal polarisation by the receiver. Therefore, two tuners on the same LNB would be forced to watch channels in the same band and polarisation.

For each tuner to have complete choice of available channels, it needs its own LNB and connecting cable. You can buy a dual-LNB, which is one unit to mount on the satellite arm containing two independent outputs, and quad- or octo-LNBs with four or eight outputs. A twin-tuner PVR needs two connections, so on many installations, a quad-LNB is the standard, which allows for additional receivers.

For more options, a quattro LNB has four fixed outputs – one for each combination of band and polarisation – and is used with a multiswitch. These work a bit like a TV aerial amplifier, allowing for many outputs – 12, 16, or more – and look at the signal from the tuner, connecting that tuner to the appropriate signal from the LNB, which give full channel choice on every connection. A fifth input on most multiswitches also allows them to be used to pipe terrestrial TV around the home.

Inside Freesat
Freesat’s technical specification is largely based around the requirements of its electronic programme guide (EPG). To coexist with Sky’s systems, there had to be some cooperation with the broadcaster, which leases some of the transponders, and some changes to the way data is sent to receivers.

The DVB standard includes ‘Service Information,’ or SI, which carries EPG data. But because Sky has its own SI being carried on the transponders used, Freesat had to slot its data alongside this.

Each element of the data stream in digital broadcasting has a packet ID (PID), and to coexist with Sky, Freesat’s data had to use non-standard PIDs, which is one reason existing free-to-air receivers won’t see it.

Another is that the text is compressed (fully deciphering that compression is at the core of the work needed for MythTV to see the EPG).

As well as basic EPG data, Freesat is broadcasting metadata that indicates which programmes are part of a series, which enables recorders to automatically record the whole set, as well as track changes to schedules and resolve clashes.

In addition to the EPG data on the channel transponders, there’s a full EPG broadcast from the Eurobird 1 satellite – at 28.5° east, it’s close enough to Astra 2 so that the dishes will pick up both.

Interactivity is based on an enhanced version of MHEG5 1.06, the system used on Freeview. The additions allow for the mandatory Ethernet port to be used as a return channel by interactive applications and for receiving IPTV streams.

HD-capable boxes must support the H.264 codec and DVB-S2, but it’s not mandatory on SD models; the word from Freesat is that all boxes must have Ethernet and IPTV services will be available on all receivers “where technically possible”. At PCW, we’d recommend an HD box just to be sure that you’ll be able to receive H.264 content via the internet too.

Besides the technical requirements, Freesat also mandates some interface issues, such as the minimum number of channels shown on the EPG and the fact that the Genre selection screen is always shown when you enter the guide, resulting in two button presses to get to the listings – unfortunately, this is one of the most annoying and, frankly, bonkers user-interface decisions we’ve seen in a while.

Within those specifications, however, there’s scope for manufacturers to change things around, so that on-screen displays and the keys used for some functions will be different. That means while Freesat boxes won’t have the uniformity of Sky receivers, nor will they have the annoyingly huge differences found among Freeview boxes.
 

gibson

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Just read your very informative write up on Freesat. Thanks for that Rat.

Best wishes from,

Gibson.
 

w851pm7

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This is really good stuff for me. Thanks alot. Just one thing if possible? Reading some of the other blurb I notice that the Astra group of satellites are described as Astra2a,b,c,d. All these units can be 'seen' by your satelitte dish yeah!, but is it your digibox that allows access to the complete group or is it a manual selection as to which satelite you chose to view? Hope you understand the question?

Phil
 

pinkhelmets

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A modern satellite receiver can tune into all the frequencies that are broadcast, so it doesnt matter which physical satellite is transmitting ~A B C D etc. If your dish is pointing in the correct position of the sky, and is able to collect enough signal, then the receiver can tune-in.
Mostly, receivers can automatically search and tune in to the video transmissions, but sometimes you can manually add details ~tell the receiver more info and it could find something else. To just confirm, there is no 'manual switching' involved.

I think you are over-complicating it :)
Its like aiming a terrestrial arial on your roof at your local terrestrial transmitter. Your tv tunes in to all channels there. Then if a new channel broadcasts then you can simply search and add it.

The main reason for a cluster of satellites in one position of the sky is that 1 just is not enough for the amount of channels broadcasting. Hope that helps.
 

jojolonomo

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good stuff - just getting started with satellite and wanted to explore hd, so well worth the read.:Jester:
 

wozzo

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really good info here,and so is the list of channels available(well its better than a kick in the b**ls).do you know if there is a version available for Ireland? thanks

You can put in any postcode you like, im in Dublin and have a NI postcode entered.

It is not ment to be for the rep but we can get it no problem.
 

jonstarr

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do you have to pay for freestat on sky, if u r not paying for sky but have sky equiptment
 

mister ed

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thanks a bunch for the info....was really considering getting one of the panasonic tv's just for the freesat receiver built in...now I've read this I'll definately buy a Toshiba that I think has a much better screen and sound and wait it out until the freesat HD service is a little more comprehensive.
 

Alano

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thanks alot rat for the guide, was going to pass it to my dad but i will also refer to it myself................cheers
 

danny8608

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Hi Rat
i have a tm800hd
my question is why wont it decode some of the FTA channels
like 5HD it calls for cfg line and just shows blank screen
thanks Danny 8608
 
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