End of an Aerial: ways to get more channels without paying fees
Ahead of the launch of Saorview, the official free-to-air digital TV service, there are ways to get more channels without having to pay fees to commercial providers, writes John Cradden
IT is not so long ago that most of us used to be able to get our television service for free (after paying the TV licence, of course).
However, this usually meant living in two-channel land (now four) and often with a less than perfect picture quality, thanks to poor reception.
Amid the clamour for better quality reception and channels to fatten up this meagre TV diet, plans were put in place by the Government and RTE as far back as 1999 to introduce a free-to-air (FTA) 20-channel digital television service to replace the current analogue service, beginning in 2001.
Nearly 10 years later, we're still waiting.
Following a direction from Communications Minister Eamon Ryan, RTE will have to launch its free-to-air DTT service (Saorview) before the end of this year and be available to at least 90pc of the population.
Although it's not yet official, the analogue signal is expected to be switched off by 2012.
But given all the setbacks to date and several still-unresolved issues, it remains to be seen whether these launch and switch-off deadlines will be met.
In the meantime, over two-thirds of the approximately 1.46 million households in Ireland with a television have given up waiting and are now subscribers to a pay digital TV service.
At the end of last year, there were over 600,000 subscribers to a paid satellite digital TV service, while 340,000 households get digital TV via cable or MMDS.
That doesn't include the 150,000 households that still subscribe to an analogue cable TV service, although this number is rapidly falling as more customers switch to similarly priced basic digital services.
In terms of the choice between satellite or cable, satellite may be the only option for those outside major cities or urban centres. But if you have the choice of either, there's not a whole lot of difference, particularly with the basic packages.
Sky's basic digital TV package starts at €22 a month, and gives most or all of the FTA UK and Irish terrestrial channels as well as a choice of other channel "packages".
The basic digital package from UPC (formerly NTL/Chorus) comprises 93 channels for €25.75 a month, including all the Irish and UK terrestrial channels too.
UPC's digital service offers a facility similar to Sky+ that allows you to pause, rewind and record live TV.
But there are ways to get more channels without having to pay a monthly subscription to companies like Sky or UPC.
There are free to air satellite dishes and installation services legally available throughout the country.
You can either buy a generic brand satellite dish kit from an electronics store or supermarket for around €100. They are also available from online retailers such as Freesat.ie.
You can tune a DIY satellite system to receive more than 200 channels and radio stations.
But if you don't fancy doing it yourself, you can ask an installer, such as Satellite.ie or Freesat.ie, to provide the equipment and install it for you at a once-off cost of just over €300, or a fraction of that if you already have a satellite dish.
Once installed, you can access more than 130 channels without any rental fees, including ITV 1, 2, 3 and 4; BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, Channel 5, Channel 4, E4, BBC News and lots more.
The service is run by the UK-based Freesat digital television service, which transmits the free-to-air services via satellite and is operated by the BBC and ITV.
The only snag is that the Irish channels are not available through this service because they are contracted to Sky TV, although you can still get them free through a TV aerial.
If you don't have an aerial, installers can offer a complete system of the satellite equipment and a separate TV aerial for Irish terrestrial channels.
If you have a Sky subscription already, you may be aware that even if you cancel your subscription, you get to keep your dish and Sky receiver box.
Michael Watterson, a freelance communications design consultant and board member of broadband lobby group Ireland Offline, suggests cancelling your subscription (after the typical minimum contract period of 12 months) and buying a FTA receiver box to use with your existing Sky equipment.
"Every town has people and large multiples selling €30 to €200 FTA receivers and Freesat receivers. They work on existing Sky dish and wiring," he said. "The only reason to go for UPC is if you are not allowed a dish or don't want one."
But before you opt for a FTA satellite system combined with a TV aerial for the Irish channels, you should make sure you are not living in an area where the existing analogue Irish TV aerial reception is poor.