Freeview to carry free-to-air HD channels

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The Independent Online

Sky television faced a rare setback as its stranglehold on high definition (HD) TV was effectively broken up by Ofcom, allowing millions to watch shows in the ultra-clear format without subscribing to the Murdoch-owned satellite provider or cable.

The broadcasting watchdog said viewers will be given a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity from the end of next year to watch HD shows through Freeview set-top boxes without paying a subscription.

Three new HD channels will be launched next year along with a fourth in 2012. The BBC will keep one of the channels while the remaining channels will be auctioned to the commercial networks ITV, Channel 4, Five and the Welsh network S4C.

Currently, the vast majority of HD TV can only be obtained through a Sky subscription (minimum £26 per month) and a Sky set-top box (£249), with a small amount of programming available through Virgin Media's cable service. That their monopoly is being broken represents a significant boost for Freeview – which requires no subscription.

However, to take advantage of the new channels on Freeview, a HD-ready television and a new set-top box will be required. Digital terrestrial users will be able to access the channels as regions take part in the digital switchover, expected to reach London in 2012.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to upgrade digital terrestrial television," said the Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards. "It offers benefits for broadcasters – who will be able to launch new services without using any new spectrum – and viewers – who will have access to new channels and services on free to air."