The boxes will provide a HDTV satellite version of the popular Freeview service, with a number of BBC, ITVchannels in high definition plus all the existing services that the current Freesat service provides.
Currently both Channel 4 and five have agreements with Sky which require their channels (with the exception of Film4) to require the use of a "Freesat From Sky" card. This means that you currently need to purchase a card from Sky Subscriber Services Ltd for 20 to watch Channel 4, five, Five US, Five Life and Sky Three.
Whilst this card is included as part of the 150 cost of Freesat From Sky, Sky have in the past invalidated the existing cards and demanded payment for a new one from Freesat users. Last time Sky did this the telephone number that was provided told customers that the must subscribe and mislead callers telling them no replacement cards were available!
The BBC/ITV service will have several potential uses:
a box-swap replacement to upgrade an existing Freesat from Sky or Sky subscription box for a box with HDTV services;
a multi-room installation with an existing dish fitted with a quad-LNB;
connection to a Windows Vista Media Centre or Windows Home Server;
Mark Thompson (BBC Director-General) said "The BBC's objective in launching Freesat is to support Digital Switchover by providing another way for licence payers to receive digital television channels and radio services, subscription free from the BBC and ITV.
"Its primary purpose is to drive digital take-up in analogue homes, particularly in those areas which are out of digital terrestrial coverage. Freesat also offers a trusted free-to-view digital upgrade path that gives licence payers all the benefits of digital television (notably high definition capability) guaranteed free of subscription."
Michael Grade (ITV Executive Chairman) said "Freesat will build on the success of Freeview by offering viewers a simple and cost effective way of upgrading to digital TV. By filling in the current gaps in Freeview coverage, Freesat will ensure that a free-to-air, no strings attached option for accessing digital TV is available to the whole of the UK ahead of digital switchover. By offering HD capability we will future proof Freesat if, as expected, high definition television continues to capture the imagination of UK viewers."
What channels will be provided?
The current single-channel HDTV service for the BBC is only a test service. It seems reasonable that the BBC will provide the main channels in HD resolution. This will probably not extend to the BBC regional news services, and may not initially include the national variations in HD.
ITV1 is the only network of theirs with regional variations, so again a "Network" version of the channel will be provided in HD, with SDTV potentially regional adverts inserted. It seems reasonable that ITV2, ITV3, ITV4 and CITV will also broadcast in HD.
It seems that the other public service broadcasters, Channel 4, five and S4C will want to get on board. This will require E4, C4, More4, five, five Life and five US to change their broadcasts, or for the new BBC Freesat to simulcast these channels as HD.
Channel 4 told the Guardian that the channel "currently has exclusive [digital satellite] carriage deals in place with Sky Digital for the majority of its channels (other than for Film4, which is broadcast free-to-air). Under the Communications Act we would expect to become subject to obligations to ensure the availability of the core channel on all satellite platforms, which would require that Channel 4 was available on Freesat."
As for the other non-public service Freeview channels:
Ftn, The Hits, TMF, UKTV Bright Ideas, UKTV History are locked into Sky subscription agreements, but obviously it would be to the benefit of Freesat if these channels could be made available to the extra 2.5 million homes.
Sky Sports News is a subscription service on satellite and Sky Three would have to go free-to-air, which may happen to show Sky's benevolence.