Freesat: How we'll compete with Freeview HD

Freesat's Will Abbott

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Going up against one of the success stories of British broadcasting is already a tough ask, but for Freesat the competition is set to become even greater than current satellite behemoths Sky with the arrival of Freeview HD and the popularisation of IPTV.

Freesat has performed impressively since it arrived as a joint BBC ITV project that offered a non-subscription platform, allowing people access to digital satellite television for a one-off equipment payment.

However, one of the key selling points of Freesat is that it offers subscription free HD content from the BBC and ITV, and with Freeview HD due to arrive later in 2009, it could begin to feel the pinch.

Freesat ebullient

In an extensive interview with Freesat's Marketing and Communications Director Will Abbott, TechRadar asked just how Freesat was going to cope in an increasingly competitive environment, and he was ebullient about the future.

"I think the first thing to say is that it's a good thing that HD is coming to Freeview; good that high-definition television is growing and that market penetration is continuing to grow," said Abbott. "We can see from other markets that HD is growing hugely. "

"In terms of HD on Freeview, it is still some time away and by no means will every Freeview product offer HD.

"To get HD through Freeview people will be required to get new products, be it set-top boxes or televisions with tuners built in.

"Plus different regions will get it at different times, so it's a relatively long-term evolution.

"This means there is a lot of scope for Freesat to continue to provide consumers with a really good value option."

Not just about definition

Although Freesat has pushed its HD message heavily, Abbott is at pains to point out that Freesat is more than just a high-definition option, with the evolution of IPTV at the forefront of the not-for-profit company's plans.

"Freesat has been more than just HD from day one," insists Abbott. "We are focused on making the platform as future focused as we can, which is why we have Ethernet ports on all of our products and are looking to develop 'on demand' and IPTV for free, which is something that Freeview isn't able to do currently.

"I still think there is a lot for Freesat, Freeview and other broadcasters to do in educating customers in what HD is and how you receive it. If lots of people begin to watch HD on Freeview then it helps get the message out to everyone."

"In terms of HD channels, satellite has more capacity that DTT and as Freesat continues to grow we will be adding channels and services and that is something we have always been focused on."

Embracing VOD

The rise of video on demand has been a key shift in the broadcast industry, and Sky has been talking extensively about how it will 'complete the circle' by potentially bringing IPTV connectivity to its homes.

Abbott is a big fan of bringing on-demand services to Freesat, with the BBC's popular VOD service iPlayer arriving on the platform later this year.

"I think 'on demand' is increasingly important, adds Abbott. "Customers are increasingly aware of video on demand and what underpins it is the control, choice and value that it adds to the service.

"I do think there is a tendency for people to dive in because it's an exciting technology, but it is the things that work well that tend to do best, like the iPhone or iPlayer on television sets through Virgin Media.

"On demand is a natural and logical step to catch-up television allowing people to pick and choose as you do on the internet, but by bringing that into the living room – where people watch television together – it allows families to watch together rather than huddling round a laptop.

"On demand is definitely an incredibly important thing and in the next 12 to 24 months I think we'll see it really starting to take off, on Freesat with the iPlayer and elsewhere.

"These things inevitably take time, but as we have talked about it is an exciting time to see the convergence that has been talked about coming to fruition.

"As the iPlayer on Virgin has shown, it stands to reason that when you provide services that offer real customer benefits, when it is easy and convenient, people use it."

Content NOT king for Freesat

Abbott does not see Freesat as content providers but very much as a satellite platform, which is the very antithesis of Sky's increasingly content-focused strategy.

"We are a platform, states Abbott. "For us the focus is on delivering a television service on the television.

"We have a managed EPG; we deliver a consumer-friendly branded EPG which sits on the television in the home and that's what we're trying to do.

"Of course that necessarily means that we embrace future technology and offer consumers the best value for money that we can."