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Limitations on bandwidth space mean that Freeview HD is not possible for many Kiwis, not now or in the near future.
Freeview’s satellite customers, who make up approximately 80 percent of the total customer base, can’t receive the Freeview high definition signal. The terrestrial HD service that launched in April currently covers 75 per cent of the country, according to industry figures.
Terrestrial and satellite Freeview boxes are not interchangeable.
The first phase of Freeview’s rollout was focused on reception issues for those in rural areas. The second phase, which started in April, has focused on high definition (HD), with a specific focus on the Beijing Olympics HD broadcast.
Freeview initially launched as a satellite only service using MPEG2 video compression software (a codec), the HD terrestrial component uses the MPEG4 codec - a more advanced, but incompatible video technology.
Given that transponder space on the Optus D1 satellite is rapidly being used up, any further expansion of data bandwidth would require Freeview’s broadcasters to buy more space from Optus.
If the old MPEG2 system was dropped and replaced with the newer codec, all satellite Freeview users would be forced to instantly buy new boxes – commercial suicide for any new venture.
There would have to be a simulcast of both the MPEG2 SD signal and the MPEG HD signal to ease customers across. Neither Mediaworks nor TVNZ currently has that space required, and there are “no plans thus far” to get the process started, Freeview general manager Steve Browning says.
He estimates a further $15 million of capital expenditure would be required to get the terrestrial HD coverage up to 87 per cent.
Approximately $30 million was initially spent on the UHF HD rollout, and the added capex would be spent simply adding digital transmitters and antennas on existing masts.
As to where the money would come from to boost this coverage, Browning has no definite answer.
“It could come from industry, it could come from government. I know the broadcasters don’t have an appetite for it, because it’s too early in the process. They need to see a bit of a payback for their initial investment. But if the government was willing to help – that’d be great,” Browning says.
In terms of expansion of the number of channels, TVNZ has basically used its quota terrestrially, and have about 3 spare spots on the satellite.
Browning estimates Mediaworks probably has enough space terrestrially to launch one HD channel and one SD, and five on the satellite.
Mediaworks had initially promised to launch two extra channels in 2007 and 2008, but this has now been delayed to April 2009 at the earliest. It has not been confirmed if either channel will be in HD.