Mexico broadcaster gets OK for free-to-air digital terrestrial TV platform

Mexico’s No. 2 broadcaster TV Azteca scored a significant victory this week when the nation’s telco regulator Cofetel approved the web’s free-to-air digital terrestrial TV platform, Hi-TV.

The ruling follows months of regulatory wrangling over Hi-TV that critics claimed broke the law by offering unlicensed digital channels.

Cofetel’s decision sets a great precedent to stimulate competition,” Azteca said in a statement.

Hi-TV is similar to France’s TNT and the U.K.’s Freeview, which give viewers free-to-air access to all the regular webs plus their digital spinoff channels via a set-top box, which the viewer buys with a one-off payment.

Both were created within a clear, government-mandated framework and were intended to help push the take up of digital TV.

However, the framework for Mexico, which isn’t set to complete the digital switchover for another 13 years, is fairly ambiguous — although, it is now slightly less so thanks to the ruling.

In it, Cofetel declared, “as the Hi-TV service is broadcast over the air, it must be concluded that the service is not value-added nor does it fall under the definition of pay television.”

It passed by majority vote with the conspicuous absence of a signature by Cofetel chief Hector Osuna, who has been accused in the press of an alleged bias in favor of rival broadcaster Televisa.

Azteca began selling the boxes in spring in major outlets, including Wal-Mart despite, the legality debate.

A loss would have been a stinging setback to Azteca’s plan to expand their offerings, and would have further ensconced media giant Televisa’s hold on Mexican TV.

Unlike Azteca, Televisa possesses several feevee platforms on which to ply its fare: cablers Cablevision, Cablemas and Cablevision Monterrey as well as satcaster Sky.

Selling for about $150, the boxes allow viewers to watch 20 channels including all the regular terrestrial webs — Azteca’s channels 7 and 13, Televisa’s 2, 5 and 9 and the standard over-the-air channels in each market — plus Azteca’s spinoff webs dedicated to sports, reality and films.

It also gives poorer Mexicans a chance to get a clearer signal on the channels they already have and a few extra channels without forking out a subscription fee that puts pay TV out of many people’s reach.

On May 11, an article in the daily newspaper Reforma, with whom Azteca has openly quarreled, accused the web of breaking several laws by broadcasting the additional channels on top of those already sanctioned to them, setting off the regulatory battle.

With the ruling now behind it, Hi-TV can officially move out of “soft-launch” mode.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more