UK free-to-air goes hybrid

The UK hybrid TV field is hotting up quickly as the two main free-to-air platforms move to add Internet connectivity shortly after the launch of the YouView connected TV platform. Freesat, the UK’s free-to-air (FTA) satellite service, last week unveiled its hybrid platform, adding catch up and on-demand content via the Internet. On the same day, digital terrestrial infrastructure provider Arqiva announced the purchase, for an undisclosed sum, of Connect TV, which is already a provider of OTT services on the country’s hugely successful DTT service Freeview.

Arqiva, which delivers Freeview over its infrastructure, will combine this with the Connect TV platform to give broadcasters and content owners the ability to deliver their channels cost effectively over the Internet to UK viewers with a Freeview HD receiver. Currently this is about 10 million homes or 40 percent of the total 25 million, and about the same number that subscribe to BSkyB, the UK’s biggest pay TV operator. A recent report from Futuresource Consulting predicted that by 2014 nearly every home in the UK would will be able to access Internet-delivered content on Freeview-branded DTT devices, as the penetration of Freeview HD boxes more than doubles to 24.2 million. The addition of Connect TV will make Freeview an increasing threat to the established pay TV providers, with Virgin Media currently second at 3.7 million homes also in the firing line.

Indeed Arqiva has ambitions to make digital terrestrial the UK’s clear number one delivery medium on the back of the Connect TV takeover. “The acquisition of Connect TV will enable us to provide viewers with a greater choice on a much wider scale,” said Charles Constable, managing director of digital platforms at Arqiva. “We recognize the best in British entrepreneurial technology and look forward to working with the passionate team from Connect TV to cement the position of Digital Terrestrial Television as the primary delivery channel in the UK.”

But the alternative FTA satellite-based Freesat, currently in 2.6 million UK homes, also has ambitions to boost the popularity of that medium. The new Internet option brings an innovative EPG that displays catch up content for the channel currently being watched in chronological order when the viewer scrolls back in time. The more usual approach is for the EPG to populate a full grid with all the programs that can be watched on demand. The new hybrid Freesat platform service, called , also delivers catch-up services over the Internet via the various channel ‘players’ and is launching with BBC iPlayer and ITV Player. This will be followed by 4oD and Demand 5 before the end of 2012, so that it will then cover the four major UK terrestrial broadcasters.

These announcements come just over a month after the launch of YouView, which, like the Arqiva offering through the acquisition of ConnectTV, combines subscription-free, DTT-delivered Freeview channels with online services from public broadcasters and pay TV platforms. YouView is itself backed by Arqiva along with the terrestrial broadcasters, as well as BT and Internet service provider Talk Talk. But YouView has another twist in that it is being aligned with the pay TV platforms of BT and also Talk Talk. BT is aiming to move to a pure OTT/IPTV service and cease transmitting over Arqiva’s DTT infrastructure. This may be leading Arqiva to pursue a hybrid TV strategy independent of YouView to compete directly for subscribers with the pay TV services.