In September Everyone TV announced the development of Freely, a new free TV service, launching in 2024, that will deliver live TV over broadband here in the UK. I’ve had a several people ask me what exactly it is, so I thought it would be helpful to explain what I think it will be and why I think it is important.
It occurs to me that not everyone knows who Everyone TV are. It came into existence in January 2023following the merger of Digital UK (which ran Freeview) and Freesat, the two free-to-air services in the UK. Everyone TV is jointly owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, also known as the UK public service broadcasters (PSBs), who together account for approx. 40% of TV viewing in the UK.
What is Freely exactly?
The quick answer is that it is the Sky Glass equivalent for free-to-air television. It is a TV service including linear broadcast delivered to TV entirely over broadband without the need for an external set-top box, stick, puck or dongle. However, with Freely, the free-to-air broadcasters won’t be developing their own TV they will be working with the existing TV brands.
It is an evolution of Freeview Play and Freesat offerings both of which have elements of their services delivered over broadband today.
This is needed as there are an estimated 4 million UK homes (15%) that do not have an aerial, satellite dish or cable connection and are reliant on broadband for their TV services. Freely would provide a free-to-view service to these home equivalent to what would have with an broadcast connection.
Freely was originally known as Everyone TV’s Next Generation Platform. They ran a consultation on the logical channel number (LCN) policy for it over the summer of 2023. It is clear from the consultation that they were looking for a channel number policy that would enable them to have a common channel number line-up across Freeview and Freesat devices (which are different today), as well as new IP only devices.
It is safe to assume that Freely will support devices with a broadcast connection (aerial or dish) as well as broadband only, so will be a hybrid offering.
My expectation is that if you buy in Freely TV some time in 2024, you will take it home and in most cases plugin into your aerial and home broadband. You will then get a channel line-up with the Freeview channels via your aerial and most of the Freesat channels via broadband. Freeview has around 80 free-to-view channels and Freesat has around 160. If during the next hurricane you lose your aerial or the dog pull the coax cable out, service will not be interrupted and you will still get all your channels just now they will all be over broadband. Of course, lots of people would never both connecting their aerial in the first place.
There will be additional channels beyond the Freesat line-up given the number of FAST channels available across different platforms. ITV currently has 17 FAST channels within ITV X. All of which will get much better viewing figures if they were within a standard EPG.
How is Freely different from Freeview Play?
Freeview Play was launched in October 2015. It combined the existing Freeview broadcast services with the catch-up players from the major broadcasters, this includes a backwards EPG, search and content discovery services.
Freeview Play has over 11 million regular users, making it the largest connected TV platform in the UK and one of the largest in Europe.
Freeview Play has evolved over time and its underlying specification enables broadcast channels to be replaced with online versions if they are not available (the commercial UK muxes have a lower coverage than the PSB ones) or with a higher quality version (replacing HD with SD, the UK closed 2 of its 3 HD DTT multiplexes in 2022).
In theory a Freeview Play device without an aerial could access its entire broadcast channel line-up with broadband versions, however this functionality has not be widely used and the channels and not actually available in versions accessible to Freeview Play.
Freely will be different from Freeview Play in a number of ways:
- The PSB have obviously agreed to make broadband versions of their channels directly available to Freely without the need for viewers to enter their different applications (e.g. iPlayer and ITV X). To date the PSBs have tried hard to keep all online viewing confined to their own applications with the exception few and far between.
- It will have an Everyone TV defined user interface. With Freeview Play, access to most services and especially live TV channels is via the TV manufacturers own UI. Freeview Play does have its own UI for content discovery (search, recommendations) but this is an application hidden away on channel 100 not accessible as soon as you switch your TV on.
Explore Freview Play on Channel 100
When will Feely launch?
The press release announce that it will launch in 2024. As it will be built into smart-TVs then the ambition must be that it will be available in the 2024 models of the main own brand manufacturers (LG, Panasonic, Sony etc.). The details of these are announced around CES in January and start hitting the shops around March. Sometime these manufacturers do mid-year software updates, so a later launch with these manufacturers is possible but they would not be keen on this.
The own brand manufacturers are the not the only game in town, there is also the high-street retailer and supermarket brands, who have a significant market share in the UK. The dominant manufacturer has traditionally been Vestel who produce own-brand models for several retailers. Their development cycles don’t follow those of the traditional manufacturers and so can produce new models during the length of the year making an autumn launch a possibility.
My guess is that Everyone TV will be working towards a spring 2024 launch with a major manufacturer.
The limiting factor might not be Everyone TV or the TV manufacturers development, but integration with BARB, the audience measurement agency in the UK. Critical for any linear TV service in the UK and ad funded on-demand services, is for the audience numbers to be included in BARBs reports. For online service this requires integration with a BARB client plugin. Though the traditional external monitor using audio watermarks/fingerprints should still work.
Will Freely be based on open standards?
One of the frustrations the industry has had with Free Play is its specifications are not open, this means that the implementation are UK specific. While the UK is an important market it is difficult for TV manufacturers to justify making UK specific models, especially with TV margin being so thin. So I’m sure they will be hoping that Freely does conform to an open standard specification. Luckily there are some available. DVB-I and HbbTV OpApp cover most if not all of what I believe Freely will need.
Will Freely streaming boxes be available as well?
Sky Glass was followed by Sky Stream, will there be an equivalent for Freely?
Everyone TV already have their own Freesat set-top boxes which they designed and manufacture. It would be an obvious step to convert these into Freely set-top boxes.
There are also Freeview Play STBs available on the market from long term Freeview manufacturers Manhattan and Humax. They are likely to want to produce a Freely STB, though the devices from Manhattan and Humax are PVRs/DVRs and how relevant is that for devices with a broadband connection is not clear. Also if he main UI comes from Freely is it indeed possible to have a PVR interface integrated with this?
Why is Freely important?
New IP platforms for television launch every other day, most are quickly forgotten about. A good example is Salto, a French streaming service, which was a joint venture across the main French broadcasts, that launch in October 2020 and then announced its closure in March 2023. Why would Freely be any different?
To start with it is not a subscription service that needs to compete for a share of wallet against the growing number of SVOD services. It will follow the highly successful Freeview Play model by being available as the standard TV service in most of the TVs sold in the UK.
When it comes to TV, UK is trend setter. This is partly due to the funding of the BBC which enables it to retain audience and invest in research and development. The other is the success of the pay-TV operator Sky, which has required the free-to-air broadcasters to work hard to promote their free-to-air platforms.
It is true that the Freeview Play approach has not been adopted outside the UK, but I believe that is due to the lack of use of open standards. An open standards model for Freely, could see it replicated across free-to-air platforms who are trying to keep their relevance in a broadband connected world.
If Freely is based on HbbTV OpApp, then Eveyone TV would be following HD+ in Germany and Tivu in Italy. Panasonic and Sumsung TVs supported a HD+ OpApp from 2019 with LG, the leading TV manufacture for Freeview Play, launched HD+ TV platforms with OpApp support in 2023.
Sumsung is interesting here as they are the market leading TV manufacturer in the UK but an outlier as they have never produced a Freeview Play TV. The fact that Samsung has provided an OpApp from Germany could provide a route for a Samsung Freely TV, but a word of caution here, HD+ operate under a pay-TV-lite model with conditional access. This means there is a funding model that doesn’t exist with the free-to-air services in the UK that Samsung could participate in.
The real reason that the launch of Freely will be important is that it will be a clear sign-post to the end of broadcast TV in the UK. If it is as successful at signing up TV manufacturers as Freeview Play has been then within a few years few people will be bothering to connecting their new TVs to their aerials or satellite dishes as it will give them no advantage to do so, just one less cable to worry about. It would be remiss of me, given my recent past, not to say that broadband TV will not work for everyone and it is important that the broadcast infrastructure stays in place to support them.
On my firsy day of joining Freesat as CTO in 2013, I was asked to launch an IP only streaming service equivalent to its satellite service within a year, essentially Freely. Something at the time I said was not possible. But 10 years on it has clearly become possible, largely due to the repositioning of BBC and ITV, Freesat’s shareholders at the time.