Fancy some high-definition TV but don't have satellite or cable? Got a PC and a digital TV card? Then you may care to know that BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five are running trial transmissions on the Freeview system, and that while the broadcasts are nominally restricted to a few hand-picked technotesters there's nothing stopping you from eavesdropping. Except for a few piddling technicalities, and the fact that industry regulators Ofcom will get very cross with you if you do.
Let's get the technical trivia out of the way first. You have to have the right PC, the right TV card and be close enough to the Crystal Palace transmitter in south London to buy it a drink. The right PC has to have at least 6GHz of processing oomph -- that's a 3GHz dual-core, for starters -- and a poky display adaptor of GeForce 6, 7 or ATI X1x00 class. The TV card must support the Broadcast Digital Adaptor (BDA) interface, which most of the new ones do, and you'll have to hunt around for the right version of decoding software to handle it all – a mammoth thread on Digital Spy is the reporting channel of choice here.
As for your proximity to Crystal Palace, that depends on how big your aerial is -- the broadcasts are being kept very low power to avoid interference. If you're a true TV nerd with a 20-element Yagi on a 10m mast, then you've got a much better chance from miles away than if you can only stretch to a coathanger with a cork on the end.
We're all set to play, but Ofcom isn't. The experimental licence was issued to the broadcasters on the understanding that a maximum of 500 users would be able to pick up the signal, and the feverish efforts by bystanders to get a slice of the action has caused problems. Why they care, how they can stop it happening and whether any of this matters is frankly beyond us -- anything that gets terrestrial HD a little headspace is a good thing by us -- but while there's these sort of shenanigans going on, we have to get all parental and tell you not to do anything illegal.
Not that proper terrestrial HD is going to happen any time soon. There's no space for it around the country until the 2012 analogue switch-off, and even then there's no guarantee it'll get a decent chunk of the spectrum. The broadcasters are lobbying hard, though, so it's a good bet.
Meanwhile, we want it, we know how to get it, but we're told we can't have it. Nothing's worse than a craving you can't scratch. -RG