First generation Freeview kit is on the way out

It’s not really that long since Digital Switchover completed in the UK, but on the 16th of January 2014 we saw the beginning of the end for the first generation of the Freeview platform.

What’s happened? Al Jazeera Arabic. In itself, that might seem fairly unremarkable; it’s not the first non-english service, as there are already channels on the platform that cater to Welsh and Gaelic speakers. But this is the first standard definition broadcast channel that won’t be available to people who have original Freeview kit. And I’m willing to bet that it won’t be the last, either.

When Freeview originally launched, it used the DVB-T transmission standard, and the MPEG2 picture encoding. Both were the obvious choice at the time, and it’s still very easy to buy a TV – even one claiming to be ‘HD Ready’ – that is capable of receiving nothing else. There is a lot of this kit in UK homes, some of it bought specifically because switchover was coming.

Meanwhile, technology marched on, and Freeview HD launched, using the more modern and efficient DVB-T2 for transmission and MPEG4/H.264 for encoding. By and large, unless you wanted HD pictures, you didn’t need to worry about that – and the HD that’s available is a simulcast of existing SD services. By not having equipment that copes with the newer standards, you’re not missing out on any actual programmes, just better picture quality. Or at least, you weren’t, until this month.

The new channel is running on one of the new ‘temporary’ multiplexes that were set up last year. These have so far been used to provide extra HD services, like BBC Four HD, and Al Jazeera’s main news service in HD. I wrote in February last year that these were a stalking horse for, effectively, a second digital switchover.

Ofcom is keen (like the government in general) to sell anything it can. And that includes the spectrum presently used for TV broadcasting. The extra HD channels aren’t just because they’re feeling kind and fluffy. They’re because they want us all to have equipment that is capable of receiving DVB-T2/H.264, because ultimately, when they take away some of the spectrum that’s used for TV now, and sell it to spivs running mobile networks, the only way Freeview can maintain the level of service that it has – let alone add anything more – is by a wholesale switch to those newer standards, including for standard definition channels.

The only people who will be able to watch Al Jazeera Arabic on Freeview are those who have HD capable receivers, with DVB-T2 and H.264, even though it’s an SD only channel. Given the minority interest, most people probably won’t bat an eyelid at this. But make no mistake, this is the beginning of the end for your first generation Freeview kit.

That kit may not be as old as you think, either: a quick look at some online retailers today shows a fair bit of kit, especially at the smaller screen sizes, that still lacks a Freeview HD tuner, which means that it won’t pick up Al Jazeera Arabic, or any later channels using the same technology. More than ever, if you’re buying new kit, if you want to continue to receive terrestrial broadcasts in the UK, it’s essential it’s able to receive Freeview HD, because you’ll increasingly need the same technology for SD channels too.

 
 

Sipgate, Asterisk and OpenWRT

In recent issues of Computer Shopper UK, I’ve been looking at how to use OpenWRT on small routers, like the TP Link TL-WDR3600. Those articles aren’t online, but I thought I’d share one of the more useful tips from them, as it deserves a wider audience.

With OpenWRT, it’s simple to install Asterisk, giving you a software phone system, and the Luci web interface even lets you set up VoIP accounts and extensions very easily. As long as you don’t want anything too complicated, you should do fine. Sipgate is a popular choice of provider for many people; there are no monthly fees, and you can choose from local phone numbers all over the place – a tip I included in the article is to get a Belfast number, so people from the Republic of Ireland can call using their national 048 code, instead of having to make an international call to reach a number in the rest of the UK.

However, if you download the current release of OpenWRT right now, and install Asterisk, there’s a very good chance that simply adding a Sipgate account via the web interface won’t actually work, and you won’t be able to receive calls. This, is seems, is do to a bug in some of the underlying libraries. But after a bit of digging around, I came up with a solution. You’ll first need to set everything else up in the web interface, as making any changes there will overwrite the config files.

When that’s done, you need to edit the sip_peers.conf file. If your Sipgate ID is 1234567, then look for the section that starts

[peer-1234567_sipgate_co_uk]

Within that section, change the type from ‘peer‘ to ‘friend‘, set ‘qualify‘ to ‘yes‘ and add a line for the dtmfmode:

dtmfmode = rfc2833

Now, edit sip_registrations.conf. Look for the line that registers with the provider; if the password is PASSWORD, then it will look something like this

register => 1234567:PASSWORD@peer-1234567_sipgate_co_uk

Since the problem seems to be with a name resolution library, you need to work out the IP address for the VoIP registrar, which in this case is 217.10.79.23.  That ensures the router will find the correct system to register, but it still fails, as it looks like the Sipgate login process wants the domain included. So, you have to include that in the username part.

That’s simple enough, and the resulting line, which certainly made my Sipgate registration work perfectly under OpenWRT and Asterisk, looks like this (obviously, replace the user id and password with your own):

register => 1234567@sipgate.co.uk:PASSWORD@217.10.79.23

And that should be it!

 
 

Gmail – a Christmas Round Robin

Fortunately, no one I know sends those ghastly round-robin emails or letters at Christmas, full of the details of their ghastly children, Jocasta and Tristran, and how they’re doing so well at competitive lute-wielding, and such nonsense.

Yet, through the magic of Gmail, I get to experience much the same effect, with the odd bonus that everyone involved appears to have the same surname as I do, and the same first initial. The Ns Whitfield, as it were.

So, this year, I know that someone has stopped by Norman’s profile on Classmates, while Nicole spent two nights at the Ramada Airport Miami North; I don’t know if she enjoyed her stay, but I’ve been invited to review it on a site called Hotwire. I wonder if this is the same Nicole who lives in Ohio, or maybe there are two of them.

I also know that Nicole has a new Samsung device, which came with 48GB of free Dropbox space. And Dropbox are sending her emails with sad faces, because she hasn’t used it yet. Don’t worry Dropbox – it’s nothing personal. She just never got your email, so I hope she’s not spending money on memory cards or anything silly like that.

Poor Nicholas didn’t get his email, either. Back in November he submitted his resume online for the job of Forklift operator in a town in Indiana; I do hope he got the job, but he probably didn’t even find out if he got an interview.

Meanwhile, Natasha, a Home Mortgage Consultant called Brian Kalwicki is still keen to help you understand all about owning a home, and doubtless the various exciting finance products he can help you with. While you’re thinking about a new home, Natasha, I hope you’re enjoying the T Mobile 4G Mobile HotSpot (Refurbished) that was shipped to your Colorado address back in August. How’s that working out for you? Is the coverage any good?

Nakia, who appears to work for a 3rd Avenue law firm in New York: I do hope the sandwiches turned up. The Chicken Milanese Platter sounded the most tempting, though I see you opted for only a dozen of them, and only the ‘basic’ presentation. Presumably the clients or staff didn’t warrant a better arrangement on the plate.

I mustn’t forget Nita, of course; Craig forwarded you a joke back in February, but why you tried to send it to what you thought was your own Gmail account is a mystery. As is why you found the ‘joke’ funny, frankly.

Who are all these people?

I have no idea who these people are, but Gmail has given me a glimpse of their lives over the past year – and in some cases, information that, in the UK, it would almost certainly be a breach of Data Protection regulations to give out about someone. I’ve been invited to log in to web sites, including the Texas Teacher Retirement System (NC? Are you out there?) and people’s health plans. Norman’s Classmates profile didn’t even ask for a password to have “his story” altered. As a result it now includes the text

Norman also doesn’t know what his own email address is, and a random person in London with the same first initial and last name keeps receiving junk from Classmates

which may at least prompt someone to ask him to check his details. Some companies simply ignore any attempt to correct matters, or send emails from an address that isn’t monitored, and offer no un-subscribe link.

I’ve wished Nicole a merry christmas, because the email from Hotwire included her phone number; I’ve left messages on Brian Kalwicki’s voicemail, but still he sends me the messages for Natasha. There’s a chance Nicholas may get a job, now that I’ve told the website they really should try to contact him another way. But T Mobile can’t change the email address on an account unless I know the account number, which wasn’t in the email they sent me. And, frankly, it’s tedious phoning up companies in the US and trying to sort out this mess, on my own phone bill.

Why don’t these people know their own email address?

Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve had my nwhitfield address at Gmail for a very long time – since you used to have introductions to get on to the service, and Guy Kewney kindly sent me one. So no one else should have been able to sign up and get one like it. Some of them clearly use nwhitfield at other domains, and perhaps just got it wrong. But have they never realised they don’t get the confirmations they expect to?

And what of the companies? People are sending out information that, in many cases, is private. And they do so without, clearly, first verifying that the address works. There’s no “Welcome to Wells Fargo, Natasha. Please click this link to confirm this is your email account,” just the information about mortgages.

Surely, for any web site, let alone ones dealing with things as sensitive as mortgages, tax arrears, job applications and retirement plans, verifying the emails are going to the right person is sensible. Sure, it may add an extra step to the sign up process, but isn’t that worth the wait, before you spray the confidential details of someone else around the internet?

If you are one of the Ns Whitfield mentioned here, I do hope you have a pleasant 2014. But, with the best will in the world, I also hope to hear rather less about you. Check your email addresses, and type them more carefully in future.

Happy New Year.

 
 

Dispatches from the War on Sex

With David Cameron’s internet censorship – let’s not be coy and use the word ‘filter’ – rolling out in the UK, I thought I’d round up some of the related material that I’ve published here and elsewhere infrequently.

I’m also going to point you at an article over on The Register, where I’ve commented a fair bit. As just about everyone who has a clue pointed out, there would be perfectly valid sites blocked by this ill-conceived idea.

In their zeal to be seen to be “doing something” people like Cameron and Claire Perry (is she the most dangerous woman in Britain?) have thrown wisdom and caution to the wind. Aided and abetted by a spineless ISP industry, we now have just about the worst of all possible worlds in the UK.

Had the ISPs not rolled over in the face of Cameron’s threat to legislate, he would have had to do just that. Politicians would have had to stand up in the House of Commons and justify why they wanted our internet censored. They would have had to listen to real evidence, and come up with clear proposals about what would be blocked, and who would make decisions, and how sites wrongly blocked would be able to appeal, lest they suddenly find their business disappearing down a black hole of censorship. People would have been able to make a clear case against Cameron’s digital Section 28, which has already seen perfectly harmless lesbian and gay sites such as the Lib Dem LGBT group blocked by UK broadband providers.

Instead, this unholy coalition of censorship, cheered on by the likes of Ms Perry, has led to a system that has no statutory backing, no political oversight – unless you count the whining of the Daily Mail, and the terror it clearly inflicted upon Cameron – and no clear means of challenging decisions. What’s censored is not for you to know, except by experimentation. Your ISP – or someone they’ve subcontracted it to – will be making the decisions for you, in your own best interests.

I’m emphatically not saying that statutory censorship is a good idea; I’d rather we had a free, open net, with people taking responsibility for themselves and their children. But if there has to be filtering, it should be done properly, instead of by ISPs rolling over, and allowing David Cameron to crow at home that he’s protecting children, while still swanning around the world, lecturing patronisingly to other governments about Human Rights, something he’d find rather more difficult had he stood up in Parliament and introduced a censorship bill.

Previously, in the war on sex:

The links here are to other material I’ve published on this blog, or elsewhere, regarding the rather disturbing trends in the UK. You may think they’re rather off topic for this blog, but I think this is all vitally important.

Cameron’s brave new world – clueless, puritan and just plain wrong. In which I explain why none of this really does anything to solve actual child abuse (July 2013)

The chilling idiocy of Cameron’s Good clean wifi. How this idea can’t really be anything other than the start of more widespread intrusion and censorship. (April 2013)

It’s time for the UK’s CPS to stop its war on sex. From another site I manage. How puritan police and the CPS can wreck someone’s life. (August 2012)

Online chat in the UK is still not free. Did you breathe a sigh of relief after the Twitter joke trial? Oh dear… (July 2012)

Digital TV doesn’t need more smut regulation. There’s an off switch, you know. And parental controls. So quit with sanitising the TV, ok? (June 2011)

Censorship – won’t someone think of the Adults. Do you know how many homes actually have children in them? Can you imagine what a list of ‘porn users’ will be used for? (December 2010)

Not directly to do with censorship, but related:

Freedom to snog. Regarding an incident at the John Snow; not directly related to censorship, but to attitudes which may well inform it. (April 2011)

Gay is not a noun. On the use of the word, and why it does matter. (October 2010)

What begins with L-E-S-B. Some things, apparently, aren’t wholesome enough to display instant search results. (September 2010)

 
 

Farewell TopUpTV

I must admit I’m a little late to the party on this, but I don’t recall seeing much fanfare at the time. In fact, I suspect a lot of people probably won’t even be really aware of what it was, let alone that it closed down at the end of October.

Back when it started, Freeview was relatively new, and not all the slots had been taken up. TopUpTV saw an opening and bought capacity – some of which belonged to Channel 5 – to provide a pay TV service for those who wanted a little extra compared to the standard Freeview offering. Channels included part time versions of UK Gold, and it was aimed at those people who had a set top box with a card slot. Specifically, those who had an old OnDigital box, since there weren’t many others around at the time with a slot. That was one of the considerations in my own choice of a Topfield PVR when they launched, as the CAM slot enabled me to get the extra channels.

With only a limited amount of space, and some channels broadcasting at slightly odd hours, TopUpTV wasn’t a roaring success, and things became progressively more difficult for it over the years. Perhaps, at first, many people understimated the success that Freeview would become, after the collapse of the subscription service that preceded it, but eventually those slots that TopUpTV used because quite appealing to other broadcasters, including Channel 5, and they slowly lost out on space, forcing them into a fairly radical course of action.

Push VOD

TopUpTV reinvented themselves as a ‘Push Video On Demand’ service at the start of 2007. With a specially designed box from Thomson, the main thrust of the service was overnight downloads; while capacity during peak viewing hours was expensive, it was easier to use space in the middle of the night, when channels were shut down. The new box allowed users to select channels, and new content from those channels was broadcast overnight, and automatically added to a library, ready to be watched later.

Perhaps that sounds like a bit of a weird idea, but remember that at the start of 2007, higher speed broadband services were only just being rolled out. An 8Mbps service from BT was £27 per month and the ‘Colossus’ backbone operated by BT still tied most people to 2Mbps. Even the BBC iPlayer wasn’t to officially come out of beta until the end of the year.

So, back then, this really did seem a novel, and interesting way to provide some extra content, but the capacity was still limited, so you’d only get selected shows from the channels you’d chosen, and if you didn’t like what was on offer, that was tough luck.

Freeview itself was busy working on innovations, and in the same year launched Freeview Playback, later to become Freeview+, and it took a while before functions like series link – seen by many as very important – made it to the TopUpTV box.

IPTV killed Push VOD

In 2010, Freeview HD launched; TopUpTV had no HD content, but they did fight back with the launch of Sky Sports, using their conditional access functionality to bring it to Freeview alongside EPSN. But that capacity problem, again – with limited space, dedicated sports fans would still need to find another way to be sure they could watch everything they needed to.

And waiting in the wings, there was even more competition. By now broadband was starting to offer much faster speeds. iPlayer was becoming well known, and LoveFilm was offering streaming to some of the first smart TV sets and games consoles.

With Netflix arriving in the UK at the start of 2012, more smart TVs, and services such as YouView plugging directly into iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD and Demand 5, it’s not hard to see why the TopUpTV proposition started to look a little ragged around the edges.

Sky doesn’t need a gatekeeper to provide access to their sports channels on Freeview any more; they can deliver them directly over the internet to equipment a NowTV box, which can also provide access to far more of the content from subscription channels than Push VOD ever could. If it was just a little extra that you wanted, then rather than taking what you happened to get from the selection available on a TopUpTV box, a subscription to Netflix would give you a huge catalogue of material to choose from, often in HD and with surround sound too – something that the SD Push VOD service would never be able to offer.

So, given the march of technology, it’s hardly a surprise, I suppose, to see TopUpTV stop broadcasting; and I’m not honestly sure it could have played out any differently – as Freeview itself took off, the only solution would have been to acquire more spectrum to broadcast more material, at considerable cost. Moving to MPEG4 might have fitted more in, but would have required investment in consumer equipment, and spending more on content, for a service that would only ever have been a poor relation to satellite or cable, yet would have needed a decent subscription income to remain viable. OnDigital never managed to square that circle, and I don’t think anyone else will.

It was an interesting experiment, which I suspect worked for different people at different times – the original linear service was good for me, back in 2004, but the PVR and Push VOD didn’t offer what I wanted, nor did the later sports offerings. But other people will feel differently. That the company reinvented itself to cope with the changing landscape is laudable. Ultimately, though, perhaps it was always doomed to be swept away by the technological tide.

TUTV Obituary at a516digital

 
 

Xmas gift guide

The first of a few pieces I’ve done for The Register on tech gifts for christmas is now online.

 
 

Sky Store – or Acetrax revisited?

Around about a year ago, I wrote a piece over on The Register looking at the state of play with ‘Over the top’ video services – that’s those that provide an IP service; in the UK these are found on a variety of platforms, including smart TVs, YouView and the Roku box.

Back then, Sky’s NowTV was relatively new, and had briefly offered pay per view, a situation which, according to their PR, would resume in time. Meanwhile, it had a load of films available for your monthly subscription, as well as access to Sky Sports.

If you wanted to just watch a single film without being tied to a monthly fee, your main choices were Blinkbox (owned by Tesco) and Acetrax, which was present on rather more sets and, despite the “independent” label on the corportate website, actually owned by Sky.

That situation didn’t last terribly long, as in May of 2013, the closure of Acetrax was announced. Since the summer, Blinkbox has had things pretty much to itself in the OTT pay per view stakes. Sky, of course, is not a company to miss an opportunity, and so it’s no surprise that this month has seen the launch of Sky Store on various platforms. Available through the company’s HD set top boxes, it’s also available on the web, the NowTV box (itself a rebadged Roku model with custom software), YouView and Roku, which is what I’ve been using.

You need to sign up on the website at store.sky.com to use the service, unless you have an existing Sky or NowTV ID, which you can use instead. Roku users can then install it like another ‘channel’ on their box, and sign in via the remote; you can install it without signing up if you just want to watch trailers – sadly not available for all films – or browse through the collection.

What’s on?

Sky claims 1200 films available at start; I’ve not counted, but it looks pretty reasonable. There are clear categories (somewhat easier to access than Netflix on Roku, where the categories shown seem to change and wander up and down the list), though of course some films appear in more than one – “Man of Steel” is both ‘Action’ and ‘Sci Fi’ for example; the latter category shows 150 films, and prices per rental range from 99p to £3.49.

It’s good to see recent films like that, alongside”Star Trek: Into Darkness”, “Pacific Rim”, “World War Z” and others; you don’t get such up to date fare on Netflix in the UK. However, there’s plenty of back catalogue too, and that’s where you may need to pay careful attention, as it could be all to easy to click and watch something that’s actually available on Netflix – like “Thor” or “Captain America” – and instead pay £1.99 to watch, a problem that may be exacerbated by the differing artwork that you’ll sometimes see for the same film on the two platforms. Clearly, there’s an opening somewhere for a web site that will help users work this out, much as Oric.com does for TV episodes; in the meantime, I’d advise those who do have Netflix to search for a film on that first, before checking Sky Store.

Watching

Viewing a film is pretty straightforward; select it from the browser, click the button to watch – which displays the price clearly – and then enter the PIN set on the website, to confirm the purchase.

One a purchase has been made, a film will appear in a library section of the site, so you can stack up a load of rentals in one go, and find them easily later. You have up to thirty days to start watching, on any device that’s linked to the account. However, once you start playback, the film is locked to the device on which you began to play – so you can’t start watching on the living room Roku, for example, and finish off with the laptop in bed. From the moment you start watching, a 48 hour countdown starts; watch as often as you like in that period – on the same device – and then you’re done. For occasional viewers, that’s probably fine, but some will doubtless find the restrictions a bit much – especially the inability to stop on one device and pick up again on another.

Quirks

While the overall picture quality is pretty good on my broadband – the web page says you need at least 2.5Mbps – it’s not exactly HD. The web site is pretty vague on this too, and says simply “Our movies are the same quality as a DVD” which isn’t a lot of help. That said, the ones I’ve tried so far are perfectly watchable. What’s more annoying, however, is that there’s no surround sound, even on a new release like Man of Steel; doubly annoying, since the Roku hardware is certainly capable of it, so you may find yourself reaching for the ‘Pro Logic’ button or one of the ‘Cinema’ modes on your surround sound amp.

For the hard of hearing, another blow is the lack of subtitles; this is strictly a no-frills experience. That even extends to some of the most basic functionality, fast forward and rewind. Don’t panic – you can do both. But, at least on the Roku implementation, you’ll be doing them with the only indication that something is happening being the elapsed time counter at the bottom right of the screen. Yes, that’s right – fast forward and rewind on Sky Store has less functionality than a VHS recorder; you’ll be effectively blind, and when the picture returns you’ll quite likely need to guess from your knowledge and memory of the film whether you’ve gone too far, or not far enough.

Overall

It’s no surprise that, after the closure of Acetrax, Sky has decided to get back into the pay per view OTT area, and there’s probably a better range of films for the UK than Acetrax ever managed. There’s a certain logic, too, in separating this out from the content that’s available on NowTV, in that users who have both will always be pretty clear what’s going to be included in their subscription, and what’s going to cost them, though I can’t say I’m 100% convinced by that.

But, while the film browser is certainly less clunky than the current Netflix experience on Roku, in my opinion it’s let down somewhat by the lack of HD, surround sound and subtitles, and the shocking inability to see the picture when using fast forward and rewind.

Some films are priced pretty reasonably, though at £3.49 for a recent release, I really would have expected surround sound; I’d put up with just ‘DVD quality’ for that. I’d be less happy if I ended up paying £1.99 to watch something that I could have seen included in my Netflix sub, where it would likely be in HD with surround sound and subtitles.

Overall? A useful addition for those who want a bit extra, especially recent movies without a monthly subscription, but for now, Sky Store definitely needs polishing.