Smart Consumer: How to prepare for the big television switch
Saorview will replace all analogue TV by 2012. John Cradden looks at how this will work
It was all supposed to be a very big deal. The Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, announced last week that the old, analogue terrestrial TV signal would be switched off on October 24, 2012 -- a year from now.
A new digital terrestrial TV (DTT) service, called Saorview, which has been fully operational since earlier this year, will replace it.
Until then, both networks will operate in parallel to give every household that still relies on the old network the time to make the switch.
The announcement of the date for switching off of the old signal should have marked the final, mass step towards an exciting new world of free-to-air digital TV for everyone in the country.
Instead, it's a seriously damp squib.
1 Why is that?
Well, we had already been waiting for DTT for something like 10 years. Plans were put in place by the Government and RTÉ as far back as 1999 to introduce a free-to-air, 20-channel service to replace the old four-channel analogue one, beginning in 2001.
Long after that deadline passed, the Government decided that because of the costs involved, it would seek a commercial partner to create a 25-channel service comprising both a free-to-air service and an (optional) premium pay TV service.
Cutting a long story short, a number of media consortiums bid for the commercial DTT licence, but following protracted negotiations over the contract that took over three and a half years -- adding to the delay -- none of the three consortiums who were offered the contract accepted it.
This was partly because of the downturn, but also the belief that the service was no longer commercially viable.
All EU member states were given a deadline of 2012 to switch off their analogue TV signals, so that left the Government and RTÉ with no choice but to proceed with launching the basic, free-to-air service, called Saorview, with just nine Irish channels.
2 What are the nine channels on Saorview?
RTÉ One, RTÉ Two, TG4, TV3, 3e, an RTÉ news channel, an RTÉ children's channel, RTÉ One +1 (showing RTÉ stuff an hour later) and RTÉ Aertel (the teletext service).
3 So who is Saorview for?
If you are among the 69pc of households that enjoy living in multi-channel pay-TV land, you may be surprised to learn that there are still 250,000 households that rely solely on the old analogue TV signal, according to figures from the Department of Communications. That's 13pc of all households with a TV.
If you are among the 2pc of households that won't be able to access Saorview, you'll have to wait for the satellite version, Saorsat, about which more information is expected soon.
4 I live in multi-channel pay-TV land. Is there any point in me switching to Saorview?
Unless you're happy to return to four (OK, nine) channel land, there seems practically no point whatsoever. Your pay-TV service will have the four Irish channels anyway.
However, you may be considering ditching your pay-TV subscription to help cut back on your bills, in which case Saorview is the way to go.
But if you want loads of Irish and UK channels but would prefer not to have to pay for them, then you could invest in a satellite TV package that can receive free-to-air UK satellite channels and combine it with a Saorview approved set-top box or TV to get the Irish channels. It'll mean putting up a dish, and more remote controls and boxes to clutter up your home and confuse you, though.
You can get these packages and more information from independent satellite suppliers, such as Satellite.ie, Freesat.ie or Freetoair.ie.
5 I live in four-channel land and will need to switch over to Saorview by next October, obviously. What do I need to do?
Most people who currently receive analogue signals through an aerial will not need to upgrade their old TV set, but they will need a set-top box (available for around €100) to decode the digital signal, a SCART lead, component cable or HDMI cable to connect the box to your TV.
The aerials in most homes that receive analogue TV signals will also work for DTT.
If you do buy a new TV, most models are integrated digital TVs (or iDTVs) these days, which means they have the digital receiving equipment built-in, removing the need for a set-top box.
To minimise buyer confusion, RTÉ has developed a labelling scheme for digital receivers and iDTVs that are "Saorview approved". This means that devices with this label attached are guaranteed by RTÉ to work on Saorview.
This is not to say that if you bought an iDTV or set-top box recently without the Saorview approved logo, it won't work with Saorview. It's just not 100% guaranteed to, or might need extra tuning to work.
6 Wasn't there some talk of scrapping the TV licence and replacing it with something else?
Yes. Earlier this year, communications minister Pat Rabbitte told the Dáil that it might well be worth considering the introduction of a universal household charge to replace the TV licence fee. He said his department, as part of a review of the TV licence system, was trying to get a handle on new platforms being used to access TV services, such as through the internet.
"Seeing that catch-up services are the norm and you can bypass broadcast TV without missing out, there is a logic to having a household charge," says Niall Kitson, editor of digital media magazine PC Live!
"The argument against it is that it would be tantamount to introducing a broadband tax by stealth. The EU might have something to say about that as well."
For more information about the digital switchover, check out www.goingdigital.ie.