Never have so many services switched in so little time on the Astra 2 satellite platform: after just four weeks, all the BBC’s television services are now available in HD.
From the viewpoint of someone unfamiliar with the way satellite television operates in the UK and Ireland, the way the changes took place may have seemed peculiar, with some services changing frequencies, regional services ceasing and the new HD services launching on the transponders previously used for SD.
The way it was implemented is thanks to the fact almost all satellite TV viewers are reliant on either Sky or Freesat and the various specifications and configurations related to those platforms. It means most viewers will never have to retune their satellite receiver.
Channel numbering is dictated by the platform and when broadcasters like the BBC make changes, it’s all about ensuring Sky and Freesat automatically update their Electronic Programme Guides (EPGs) to redirect viewers to the new, correct versions of channels.
Sky in particular demands broadcasters go through a number of hoops before they can add their service to the Sky EPG.
Normally, this means channels undergo a three week period of test transmissions, which may include bars and tone, or a preview loop. Broadcasters must also submit programme guide data within a deadline and ensure their services are correctly configured.
This means that normally, new service launches and transponder changes can take a while to complete. On the other hand, the way both Sky and Freesat EPGs work mean broadcasters don’t have to publish frequency changes or announce them on-screen, as you may see from time-to-time on various international satellite platforms.
The BBC HD switch saw new services first appearing on satellite and going live on EPGs within days. On Monday 13th February, a transponder was lit up with services and went live on Freesat within hours – something that hasn’t happened that quickly before.
Of course, the HD channels have existed for a time now, and the BBC has been delivering them to Sky since 2021, when Sky Glass launched. As a result, there’s nothing really to ‘test’, unlike a brand new service launching to satellite for the first time.
HD channels, but not always HD content
Not all services are in native HD all the time though: recorded programmes on BBC Parliament are still upscaled. And apart from BBC London, North East and Cumbria, North West, South and South West, the remaining regional news services are upscaled.
If you’re in an upscaled region, your eyes are not deceiving you if during the national weather forecast the map suddenly becomes rather fuzzy – that’s the point your region soft-opts out, ahead of the start of the local news programme.
The lack of native HD in all areas is because the arrival of the HD regional channels is only one part of the transmission chain. Other projects are taking place to ensure the full chain is HD.
The different upgrades are taking place in different orders, so viewers can expect a mixture of combinations.
Some regions broadcast in HD, but still have an old studio set that doesn’t look particularly good in HD. Others have a shiny new set with screens and backdrops that will look amazing in HD, but are still upscaled. And others neither have a new studio set nor have received an upgrade to their gallery…yet.
Freeview and iPlayer still remain to be upgraded.
The BBC now has five HD channels per transponder – one less than ITV using the same parameters, and as a result there is some empty bandwidth showing.
But where a broadcaster needs to carry multiple versions of the same channel, showing the same thing at the same time, this does restrict how many services can fit on a transponder. The BBC has chosen 3 versions of BBC One HD per transponder, plus two other channels. ITV has up to 5 regional versions of ITV 1 HD, plus one other channel.
And for those who don’t like time delays: some of the new HD variants do add some extra delay compared to the SD version, with some regions more affected than others. There’s a lot of reasons behind this, and a fraction of the overall delay can even be attributed to your own satellite receiver.
Two of the transponders used for HD also carry some of the BBC’s radio stations, although these are not yet added to the Freesat and Sky EPGs.
As far as viewers are concerned, the changes on Freesat and Sky are now complete. But there’s still some housekeeping to be completed. Again, thanks to the way the Sky and Freesat EPGs work, most viewers won’t notice a thing.
Digital terrestrial service Freeview becomes the last platform to receive the HD upgrade – the BBC says this will be done by the end of April.
PICTURED: various satellite dishes. COPYRIGHT: unknown.