The days of aerials on rooftops may be numbered as New Zealand households sign up to fibre-based broadband services and more television content is delivered online.
Freeview has introduced a streaming device called Dish TV SmartVU X, which allows Freeview channels to be streamed for the first time, so there is no need to use an aerial or satellite dish. It is small enough to fit into the palm of your hand and comes with a magnet, so users can attach it to the back of their television set. It has Wi-Fi capability, and there are plans to enable direct access to an Ethernet port. The device has Chromecast built in, can stream 4K ultra high definition content and its Bluetooth remote control includes voice search.
Consumers with the device can access 12 channels via IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) as well as apps such as Netflix, Lightbox, YouTube, Stuff Pix and more via the Google Play digital distribution service. The Freeview On Demand streaming service will be added later this year.
Freeview was established in its current form during the ‘Digital Switchover’. This was the government initiative to move from analogue to digital television transmission, from 2012 to 2014. Freeview is a joint venture between TVNZ (45 percent ownership), MediaWorks (33 percent), Māori TV (17 percent) and Radio NZ ( five percent).
Freeview CEO Jason Foden describes the service’s customer demographic as “slightly younger” when compared with the current pay TV subscriber base. “We have engagement with over one million households, that’s about two-thirds of New Zealand homes, with access having grown nine percent since 2016,” he says.
The move by Freeview to offer streaming services is expected to further its reach – and to deliver content from the range of New Zealand broadcasters to more Kiwi audiences. Foden says 10 percent of New Zealand households currently don’t have access to broadcast television via either a UHF aerial or satellite dish.
There are three ‘household types’ in particular that Foden says the new service will appeal to: those living in new builds where fibre has been installed and there is no television aerial; people who live in apartments or in a flatting situation, and people who may want to access television in other parts of the house, such as a second living area with no direct aerial connection.
Foden says while a fibre connection is preferable for consumers wanting to use streaming services, those who don’t have access to Ultra-Fast Broadband services can use a VDSL (Very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line) connection. He recommends an unlimited broadband plan for “peace of mind”, and he notes that Freeview is “ISP agnostic”, so it doesn’t matter what internet service provider a consumer subscribes to.
Chorus’ network strategy manager, Kurt Rodgers, is enthusiastic about the new service. He says giving users the ability to switch seamlessly between traditional broadcasters and online providers using one remote could be the “gateway drug” to IPTV, especially for those viewers who have so far shied away from online services.
“It’s made for the mass market, for people who aren’t tech savvy,” he says. “All you need is a television, a HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) port and a broadband connection. The vast majority of New Zealand homes have those things.”
Foden is ambitious about adding more content – both free and subscriber-based. It currently has Spark’s Lightbox, and Foden is in discussion with Spark about sports content, in particular the Rugby World Cup.
“We’re really keen to offer that service on the IP platform, so this major sporting event can be easily accessed in Kiwi homes. I can’t say 100 percent that it will happen, as we are in conversation with Spark, but we have a mutual aspiration to broadcast a range of content to the broadest possible audience.”
Foden is also open to working with Sky TV and would like to have its content made available via the new service. “We’d love to have Prime on board, and to have Fan Pass and Neon [movies] available on the platform,” he says.
“Our primary focus for SmartVU X is expanding the streaming channels [Prime and Choice] and getting ready for the Rugby World Cup,” says Foden.
While the most popular channels on Freeview are from the major New Zealand broadcasters such as TVNZ and MediaWorks, it carries a number of channels designed for niche audiences. Foden says the move to IPTV presents an opportunity for new content creators who might not be able to afford broadcast transmission. The cost of IPTV delivery is cheaper because with CDN (Content Distribution Network) you only pay for the people who actually watch it.
So, how long before consumers are no longer able to access Freeview via a roof-top aerial or satellite dish?
Foden estimates broadcast transmission won’t be switched off for at least another 10 to 15 years. The service is owned and managed by Kordia in New Zealand, with broadcasting service provider JDA servicing some of the country’s regions. But, if the Government makes the call to switch off broadcast transmission, there will likely be a mass marketing campaign advising people to take up IPTV services.
Chorus’ Rodgers is more bullish about the end to broadcast transmission – he would like to see it turned off in 2025, when the second phase of the Ultra-Fast Broadband roll-out will be completed.
“I would have thought 2025 is a great time-frame to aim for. The current UFB will be completed in 2022, it seems perfect,” he says.
“Shut down broadcast transmission and the copper network and create a fibre-based digital society. Isn’t that the reason for the UFB? Broadcast transmission is only capable of doing linear TV, it can’t do 4K content, it can’t do Video On Demand. You need an aerial, and, with all the densification happening in Auckland, people aren’t able to get UHF aerials and satellite dishes,” he says.
Other countries are considering switching off broadcast transmission, with Belgium and Switzerland being among the first to make the call. Belgian Dutch-language public broadcaster VRT pulled the plug on its service in December. It claimed it was costing over €1 million a year to sustain and only served 45,000 viewers. And the Swiss public broadcaster SRG says it will terminate digital terrestrial distribution of its television channels (DTT) in June. SRG says only 1.9 percent of households still use DTT and advises those affected to move to satellite, cable or IPTV services.
Both Foden and Rodgers agree satellite technology is likely to exist for many more years because people living in remote locations can’t access the high-speed broadband services needed for IPTV services.
Rodgers says the end-goal for New Zealand should be to push fibre out to 99 percent of the population (when UFB2 is complete it will be available to 87 percent). “But we would always need to acknowledge that there will be that last one to two percent.”