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Freesat from Sky (fSfS) dates back to the introduction of Sky's digital satellite service back in 1998. It is a service that combines the BSkyB Digibox, Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) and a limited use of Sky SubscriptionServices Ltd (SSSL) encryption services to provide access and listing for hundreds of channels that broadcast via satellite.
Soft or clear?
There are two types of channel on fSfS, those that are in the clear and those that use soft encryption.
The majority of these channels are of the first type. This means that you can, should you wish to, view the programmes on these channels using any European satellite receiver. However, as all Sky customers (including the majority who are subscribers) are guided to channels by three digit numbers, or via the interactive listings, without making an EPG payment to Sky, these channels would be effectively invisible.
All of the BBC television and radio services are broadcast in the clear, as are those of ITV.
There are very few soft encrypted channels, by comparison. These are currently Channel 4, five, Sky Three, five Life and five US. These channels require the use of a Sky Digibox and a card that costs 20+VAT.
The stated purpose of these cards is to ensure that the viewer is within the United Kingdom. To this end, the cards are only supplied to UK addresses (with a limit of four per household) and can only be bought calling from a UK phone line.
However, as the EU Directive Television without Frontiers makes the provision for public service channels to be rebroadcast unencrypted on satellite, there is no need for Channel 4 or five to encrypt.
However, Channel 4 entered into a commercial arrangement with SSSL when the FilmFour channel was a premium subscription one; E4 and More4 are basic-level subscription channels on satellite to this day.
It has been suggested (and Ofcom are still investigating here) that SSSL would use their power over their EPG to place the More4, E4 and Film4 at the bottom if the channels went free-to-air.
five, whilst a public service channel is owned by the European media conglomerate RTL. It may be that RTL sees the leaking of five's transmissions outside the UK as being a threat to other parts of the empire. However, EU law makes it clear that the channel has no requirement to encrypt: any restrictive contracts from the channel's programme suppliers tried to impose would be illegal.
Why did Sky bother with fSfS?
The regulators at the time the ITC (Independent Television Commission) and the OFT (Office of Fair Trading) was determined that Sky should not monopolise the digital satellite system in the way they perhaps had with the analogue one.
Satellite television is intended to be a free market where there are two or more competing companies in each market sector.
Initially the first television satellites such as the famous Telstar were used by broadcast companies to link to overseas. Until their launch, to transport a filmed report around the planet required a courier to get on an aeroplane with the physical film in a bag.
These first satellites were in a low orbit, and this required both the receiver and transmitting stations to be enormous many tens of meters high. They also had to move quite quickly to track the satellites as they zoomed overhead.
The next development was credited to science fiction author Arthur C Clarke. He proposed that if a satellite was put into orbit above the equator at just the right distance 23,000km from the earth it would appear from the ground to be stationary. In fact, it is moving rapidly, but at exactly the same speed that the earth turns.
The UN provided an agreement that satellites in these locations (the Clarke Belt) would be issued on a country-by-country basis. So, for example, the position over the equator at 19.2 degrees east was allocated to Luxembourg.
The power of the transmissions from these satellites was increased so that the receiving dishes could be decreased in size, first to a few meters and eventually to the size of a large dinner plate.
On December 11, 1988, a private Luxembourg company, SES Astra, launched a satellite into the 19.2 east slot. Astra then rented the use of the transponder to other EU companies. Each satellite operates on a number of different frequencies, each frequency approximating to an analogue TV signal.
The BSB bit
The UK too did attempt to use the allocated Clarke Belt slot 31 West but some well intentioned but distinctly unfree market meddling lead to the abandonment of the five channel service.
Whilst the signals from the Marcopolo satellite were stronger (and could be watched with a smaller dish) and the D2-MAC pictures of the highest quality, the service failed.
BSB was set against Sky with their Astra service. The Luxembourg satellite was being leased transponder by transponder to any company that was happy to pay. With a larger customer base, the humongous overhead costs (and associated risks) were shared.
In addition Sky did not attempt to fill every single transponder themselves, so anyone who bought a Sky satellite receiver automatically got all the channels on the satellite. Whilst foreign language services are of little interest to most Brits, multilingual services were a success (for example, Eurosport and Cartoon Network).
The free-market approach also allowed US companies to launch services without having to enter an ITC beauty contest, so MTV Europe, etc
In retrospect, Sky was hailed as a winner and also claimed that support from freemarketeer Prime Minister Thatcher who, it is reported, detested the cosy nature of British TV in the 1980s.
It was somewhat inevitable that demanding that consumers have TWO satellite dishes, TWO incompatible decoders and subscriptions to two companies that there would only be one winner. Over an over consumers demonstrate a dislike of this incompatibility when it is clear that simply making a choice will mean could end up with an expensive doorstop. The videotape war (VHS vs Betamax) was fresh in people minds, today's logical comparison being the recent HD-DVD vs BluRay debacle.
Encryption and subscription
There was another factor that initially gave confidence to BSB that their five channel service would win over Sky. The main reason for the delay in the start of the BSB channels was the encryption technology fitted into the D2-MAC boxes. At this point, all the Sky receivers were free-to-air boxes. BSB though that their encryption and subscription system for The Movie Channel would beat Sky's advertising-only service.
However, a system called VideoCrypt was found and adopted by Sky. Whilst demonstrably inferior to the BSB system, it worked well enough for Sky. In XXX 199X, they announced the Sky Multichannels system, which now required a modest monthly payment to decode a selection of basic channels.
In addition, Sky Movies (and The Movie Channel) and Sky Sports charged a premium for access.
Encryption and the Free Market
There is nothing inherently against the principles of a free market system to provide subscription-funded satellite service.
However, what tends to happen is that consumers are only prepared to deal with a single supplier of encryption (subscription) services, and this makes this company a gatekeeper.
I currently have a multi-room subscription with Sky, but have been made redundant so need to reduce costs. I have a Sky HD box in my lounge and my old Sky box in the kitchen. I want to drop the multi-room subscription. Can I use my old Sky box in the kitchen without a viewing card, to receive free to air channels?
tracey: Even if you cancel Sky you will find that you can still view most of the ordinary channels as before on the Sky box, the only ones you wont being those dedicated to a Sky subscription like Sky box office films or virtually everything else in the EPG listings starting with "Sky", that is with the exception of Sky news.(501).
I live in rented accomodation & have sky multiroom. Im leaving in a couple of wks so my landlord will cancel my subsription with sky. Im taking my sky box to my new house which is already set up for sky. Can i just plug in my sky box in with the card & get freesat?
I have a TV in the lounge which has connection to satellitedish via sky + box with subscription to Sky. I have no outdoor Ariel. I also have a second TV in the bedroom with an indoor Ariel. I am thinking to give up the sky subscription for financial reasons. After switchover in April I will not be able to get any TV reception on my TV in the bedroom. I have bought a Freeview box but it does not work with indoor Ariel. My questions are:
1. After giving up subscription to sky, will I be able to receive Freeview via the sky + box as I would still have sky viewing card in the sky box?
2. And if so, is there any way I can connect the TV and Freeview box in the bedroom with the unsubscribed sky + box in the lounge, to be able to watch free view channels in the bedroom?
I can’t afford to fork out few hundred pounds for an out door Ariel.
Hi, I cancled my subscription with sky awhile back and I am currently receiving free channels. I am planning to moving back to the Republic of Ireland and was just wondering if I can bring my sky box with me. I am just enquiring as I am not sure as stated above "The stated purpose of these cards is to ensure that the viewer is within the United Kingdom. To this end, the cards are only supplied to UK addresses (with a limit of four per household) and can only be bought calling from a UK phone line."
Hi, I currently have a Sky HD box and a second multi-room sky box. I now live on my own so never watch both TVs at the same time. If I cancel my multi-room can i move my sky card into either box to receive my sky channels depending on what room i am in. If not will I still get all my free channels on the second TV
Presently, I subscribe to sky (customer for 5+ years)and pay £20.50 per month. I note that virtually all the channels I watch are also contained in fSfS so I would like to cancel my present subscription and have access to fSfS. Can I just cancel my subscription and continue to use my Sky+box to receive and record programmes?
I want to cancel my sky subscription. I have a sky hd box and no card. i am no good with technology so will not be able to wire or connect things up. If i cancel will i get the free channels automatically without having to do anything? Really need some help on this!
melanie: You can check on what channels you will be able to receive if you cancel your subscription by simply removing your card and running through the list.
Cards aren't really necessary for viewing free channels and only an odd exception exists like Sony TV (157), the only problem is that if the card is not inserted then dependant on where located the local news channel may not be correct.
By the way you do not require to do anything when you cancel your subscription as everything will be as before, except that is for the recording / playback side of the box as it will not be operable as Sky will disable that at the same time as your ability to view their dedicated package programmes.
bill reed: You cannot! and this is no way around this, as Sky on a permanent basis, retains the access code necessary to enable this section of these devices to operate, which in effect, causes a Sky+box to revert to being a standard box as soon as a subscription is cancelled.