It's been more than six months since the disastrous first broadcasts of Freeview HD. Why disastrous? This author has been stood, money in hand, ready to buy the hardware to get Freeview HD, yet even today, there's not a single suitable product available.
Yes, Freeview HD TVs, set-top boxes and PVRs have found their way to market, but what about PC compatible receivers? Bupkis. Not a single one has been paid for and received by a consumer here in the UK because nowhere is selling them. C'mon, the signals have been in the air since 2009... where are the damn tuners?
In December 2009 you would have struggled to find any kind of Freeview HD compatible hardware. Uptake of a new brand new technology is going to be slow at the very start, but having no hardware in the stores is like shooting the runners with the starting pistol - everybody loses and there's likely to be a jail sentence. OK the simile falls apart towards the end, but we still think the way the terrestrial HD has been launched is criminal. Still, at least a handful of devices were available for March's official commercial launch of the service. Oh, but some regions won't even get broadcasts until 2012.
What's been the problem then? To make best use of the spectrum available to the service and to create the impression that a great deal of thought had gone into future-proofing, it was decided by the powers that be to broadcast the first Freeview HD multiplex using DVB-T2. Standard Freeview is transmitted over DVB-T and uses QPSK, 16QAM or 64QAM modulation schemes. DVB-T2 introduces an additional modulation scheme - 256QAM, along with other technical changes to improve bandwidth efficiency. But no DVB-T device can demodulate DVB-T2 signals.
We're left with a whole lot of Freeview tuners that simply cannot see the multiplex that HD channels are carried on. That includes scores of HD Ready Freeview TVs (yes, they're HD, but they can't receive terrestrial HD broadcasts without an external receiver), not to mention heaps of PVRs and set-top boxes.
It didn't have to be like this. In other countries HD programming is broadcast using the old DVB-T standard - there's no technical limitation, it just uses up more spectrum (juicy, expensive, regulated spectrum). So consumers that are finding out their "HD" TV can't receive HD without forking over more money have every right to be pissed off about it.
The most annoying thing is that the HD Ready logo made no provision for how Freeview HD would be transmitted, because HD Ready simply implies the ability to receive from HD sources and display it - no in-built transmission reception capabilities are required. Yes, technically everything is above board, but a scheme designed to remove confusion lead to people not asking the tough questions, such as "what happens when when terrestrial HD gets turned on?".
Getting back to the subset of consumers that are the most hard done by... the Media Centre PC crowd. What the hell is going on? To build a DVB-T2 receiver for a PC you need:
- A tuner chip for terrestrial broadcast frequencies
- A demodulator compatible with DVB-T2 modulation schemes
- A PCI or USB interface controller
- Some resistors, capacitors, maybe an oscillator - AKA the boring bits on a circuit board
All of these things exist, because aside from the PCI/USB interface, they're the same components that are needed to build a receiver for a Freeview HD television, set-top box or PVR. As a bonus, you don't even need to decode the video - let the computer do that - or even demux the transport - give the whole thing to the PC and let the user have simultaneous access to all the channels on a multiplex.
In essence, it should be easier to build a DVB-T2 USB stick than it is to build a set-top box, and if not easier, then at least quicker. So where are they? Some companies had hoped to get devices on sale in time for the South African Amateur Dramatics Tournament, but that's come and gone, with little in the way of commitment to any revised release timeline. At Computex we couldn't get anyone to set a date in stone for products. We have this week picked up the scent of a Chinese manufacturer that plans on shipping a product in August, so maybe that's the month the ball finally starts rolling, if it hasn't deflated from neglect.
Perhaps supplies of DVB-T2 demodulators are being snapped up by TV and set-top manufacturers before PC add-in manufacturers can get a look-in? Perhaps there's some massive technical hurdle we've overlooked? Do the millions of homes that still can't receive Freeview HD put manufacturers off? Maybe there's nervousness about handing over control of viewing and recording HD broadcasts to PC users? After all, we don't like it very much when people tell us what we can and can't do with stuff on our computers - but for some reason people are OK with it in a PVR. We're not even going to venture down the alley of "what happens if the BBC encrypts the service information for the HD multiplex?" - there's enough rage in this article without it.
We wait with bated breath for August, in the hope that PC products might actually start appearing. Until then, keep the pitchforks sharpened.