Freesat may have taken a long way to become reality, but in just a few short months the service has already become a roaring success, with the path to subscription-free HD services having helped it to reach 100,000 users since May.
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. Indeed, Freesat owners are currently the only people who can watch ITV's limited HD programming through their red button on certain shows and sporting events.
Freesat claims that it has enjoyed "strong, steady growth throughout what has been a tough summer for high street retailers" but Sky remains strong, with over 10 million subscriptions now on the BSkyB books.
So what can you expect from Freesat? How does the UK's independent satellite TV platform compare to Freeview, and to its pay-TV rivals? And is it worth getting instead of instead of Sky, Virgin Meda or Freeview (which will eventually have its own HD services)? We'll answer all these questions and more, with our complete guide to everything Freesat.
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.
What does it cost?
Freesat finally came to life on May 6 this year. The service'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 available online and in-store from Argos, John Lewis, Currys Digital and Comet but a number of independent electrical retailers are also being licensed to sell Freesat. It's 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.
To many, Freesat will solve the great problem with Sky – cost. If you want the whole deal it can set you back £57 per month. What many don't realise is that Sky also offers a 'Freesat from Sky' service. A one-off £150 payment buys you minidish installation, a Sky Digibox and a special viewing card that 'unlocks' the channels (most notably Five's and FilmFour) that are encrypted solely to prevent reception overseas.
Another even cheaper option is getting Freesat or Freesat from Sky if your house already has a working minidish on the wall (installed, perhaps, by a previous tenant) or a satellite TV outlet.
What channels can I get?
BBC HD is on Freesat 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 has started to show selected programmes including Champions League football in HD; indeed, currently this is not even available on Sky HD.
Instead of launching a whole channel for HD, ITV is using 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 – presumably because of the sheer dearth of HD content currently.
Channel 4 HD has no plans to join Freesat while it's still at an experimental stage, and Five doesn't have an HD channel.
HD set-top boxes are available from Goodmans, Bush, Grundig and Humax now. Humax has also launched a twin-tuner HD PVR. Freesat has also been included within numerous televisions too.
Project: Create the best Freesat PVR ever
Interactive and on-demand
Freesat uses a version of the MHEG interactive software seen on Freeview, providing digital text, subtitles, audio description and extra video streams.
There are special 'Freesat extensions' to MHEG which allow richer services that can take advantage of the extra bandwidth on satellite and the greater processing power of today's set-top boxes.
The BBCi text and red button service has been completely re-written on Freesat and is significantly faster than the same service on Freeview.
Every Freesat box has an Ethernet port which can be connected to your home broadband connection to allow high-capacity return path for interactive services. This is likely to include versions of the BBC iPlayer and the forthcoming Project Kangaroo service, so you can access on- demand TV from your set-top box.
The BBC wants iPlayer be available by the end of this year over Freesat, while Kangaroo could take longer to arrive. It's possible that other free or pay-TV services may want to be available via the Ethernet port, although that would bring Freesat's key selling point into doubt.
Look for the badge
The Freesat EPG and interactive services will only function on Freesat-badged receivers. They cannot be picked up using a Sky Digibox or free-to-air receivers which don't carry the Freesat badge, although Sky has its own EPG and interactive technology. Some manufacturers may choose to upgrade their firmware to meet Freesat specifications, but without an Ethernet port they will not be able to carry the Freesat badge
Improvement over Freeview?
A long-term problem is the difference between Freesat and Freeview's channels lists, which is sure to cause disappointment and frustration to a great many viewers.
However, Freesat is great news for anyone who wants to get free digital TV, particularly if you can't get Freeview or you want to watch BBC HD this decade. It's technically better than Freeview and the potential to add iPlayer is very exciting.
What you can buy
Standard definition: These boxes have twin Scarts (one RGB) and analogue stereo audio outputs: Bush BFSAT01SD (£50), Goodmans GFSAT100SD (£60), Grundig GUFSAT01SD (£50).
High definition: These have HDMI out, twin Scarts (one RGB), optical digital audio out, and analogue stereo audio out: Bush BFSAT01HD (£120), Goodmans GFSAT200HD (£140), Grundig GUFSAT01HD (£150), Humax FOXSAT-HD (£150).
PVR: Humax has announced its box, the Foxset HDR (£300) which can be preordered online. Capacity is 320GB. Other manufacturers are expected to supply PVRs in the second wave.
Integrated hi-def TVs: Panasonic has launched three plasma TVs (42in TH-42PZ81, 46in TH-46PZ81 and 50in TH-50PZ81) with integrated Freesat and Freeview tuners. There are also two LCDs (32in and 37in), also with both Freesat HD and Freeview tuners. The plasma range are all 1080p Full HD-capable, with an SD card reader offering MPEG-4 HD playback, optical digital audio out, and HDMI out with Enhanced Viera Link, although you cannot record HD to a suitable Panasonic recorder. They have a total of three HDMI connectors.
Standard installation costs £80 for a dish with a single- output LNB and up to 30m of cable, but other options will be available at different retailers: Argos will only offer the standard installation in-store, but you'll be able to talk through the options with the installer before they visit.
Comet, Currys and John Lewis stores will offer a menu of options for PVR (or PVR-ready) systems, or multi-room installations. These are £120 for two rooms, £160 for three rooms and £190 for four rooms from Comet or Currys, while John Lewis charges £120 for a two-room installation and will calculate other prices on a case-by- case basis with the customer in-store.