A free satellite service has long been recognised as a way of filling the gaps in Freeview's coverage that didn't force viewers to sign up to Sky, but it's taken a long time to go from dream to reality.

The road to Freesat started five years ago, when the BBC abandoned encryption on its satellite broadcasts, but it was another two years before ITV followed suit. In September 2005 the two announced that Freesat would launch about six months later, and it then went very quiet until last year.

Long development

The successful trial of high-definition TV on Freeview in late 2006 seemed to bring the free-to-air broadcasters together again, and there were rumours that Channel 4 would be able to leave the Sky umbrella. A launch date of spring 2008 was announced, followed by several equipment manufacturers committing to the cause.

We knew that it would have an EPG and interactive TV software based on the same MHEG-5 system used by Freeview, it would have Freeview Playback-style recording functions, and HD channels.

Otherwise, facts remained hard to track down, with rumours that the partners couldn't agree on a technical specification, so the receivers wouldn't be developed in time. As the clocked ticked down it was still very unclear whether any of Channel 4's digital family would be able to join, or even if there would be any products to put in the shops.

Freesat finally came to life on May 6. Three manufacturers remain on board, but at least Channel 4 has broken free, even if Five remains shackled to Sky So after all this anticipation, how does the UK's independent satellite TV platform compare to Freeview, and to its pay-TV rivals?

Cost options

Freesat's key selling point is that there's no contract or subscription, just the cost of the set-top box and installation. Unlike Freesat from Sky, which has a set £150 cost and delivers a standard Digibox with a single-room installation, there are a range of Freesat receivers and installation options depending on which retailer you visit.

It's initially available online and in-store from Argos, John Lewis, Currys Digital and Comet but throughout the summer a number of independent electrical retailers will also be licensed to sell Freesat.

Reception

Freesat is available to 98 per cent of UK homes, using a standard 45cm minidish.

It broadcasts from the same group of Astra 2 satellites used by Sky, at 28 degrees East, so if you already have a Sky minidish you won't need a new one, although you may need to upgrade the LNB if you do not have any spare feeds from the dish.

The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 signals are all broadcast from Astra 2D, which has a smaller footprint than the other Astra 2 satellites, and these will require a larger dish to receive outside the UK.

High definition

BBC HD is on air now, with a prime-time schedule that will expand over the next few years into the afternoon. The BBC's hi-def services are broadcast in 1080i with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio.

ITV doesn't have any hi-def programmes as yet and its first access to HD will come in August, when it starts showing Premiership highlights, UEFA Champions' League and England matches. ITV won't confirm if there will be any non-sport hi-def shows, although Freesat's marketing features both the ill-named Britain's Got Talent and Primeval.

Instead of launching a whole channel for HD, ITV will use a red-button application, so users with an HD box can switch to the hi-def stream when it's available. This also means that ITV HD will be exclusive to Freesat for some time, although Sky has said it's keen to have access for Sky HD owners.