In primary school – P4 or P5 – I remember listening to a short current affairs educational radio programme that mentioned the new concept of cable TV and channels arriving in homes through coaxial cable rather than aerials.
It was at least another ten years before CableTel started to dig up the streets of Belfast. Early cable TV systems were analogue, but they paved the way for today’s bewildering choice of television transmission technologies that now includes cable, satellite, digital terrestrial, and IPTV.
By early 2011, 90% of homes in Northern Ireland homes had a television or set top box capable of receiving digital TV. (Source: Ofcom’s Communications Market Report Northern Ireland, 2011.)
On Friday morning, a robot called Digit Al user the ever-so-wonky Albert Clock to unveil the date on which analogue television signals in Ireland will cease to be transmitted.
In just over a year – on 24 October 2012 to be precise – 0% of Northern Ireland homes will be able to pick up an old analogue television signal. Two weeks beforehand, analogue BBC Two will be switched off as a final reminder to anyone who missed the publicity.
In fact, 0% of homes in Ireland will be able to pick up an analogue signal as plans for Digital Switchover have been synchronised across the island.
While Northern Ireland’s three main transmitters already broadcast Freeview at low power, switching off analogue allows the digital signal to be boosted and extended to the 40 or so relay transmitters. That’ll boost Freeview availability from 66% of households up to 98.5%.
As part of NI’s switchover, a mini-mux (a small group of channels) will broadcast RTE1, RTE2 and TG4 right across Northern Ireland meaning that the days of stealing overspill signal from the Irish transmitters near the border – or relying on the low power Divis transmitter that broadcasts the Irish language channel TG4 to parts of Belfast – are gone. However, some content (eg, sport) may be subject to rights issues and be removed from the northern version of these channels. People living close to the border will of course still be able to tune in the overspill of the southern transmitters as long as they have the right spec of set top box. Local media has so far made little mention of the availability of RTE1, RTE2 and TG4 right across the north.
Denis Wolinski (he’s the one on the left) is Digital UK’s man in NI. At Friday’s announcement about the date he explained:
This announcement paves the way for the end of analogue TV and the dawn of a fully digital age in which everyone can enjoy more channels, more choice and better pictures. Digital UK will ensure people know what to do, and that advice and practical support are available to those who need it.
That last sentence is important. Paid for out of the BBC licence fee, the Switchover Help Scheme offers practical help to people who are aged 75 and over, eligible for certain disability benefits, registered blind or partially sighted or living in care homes.
For £40, they will be given equipment to switch one TV per household to digital. They will be able to have that equipment installed if they want it, a demonstration of how it works and a number to call while they get used to things. If they’re eligible and also on income-related benefits, the help will be free. Everyone eligible will be contacted directly before switchover. More information is available on 0800 40 85 900 and online at helpscheme.co.uk.
With slightly different digital transmission standards in use in the north and south of the island, together with the introduction of Freeview HD (and Youview), clear and practical information will need to be made available for everyone so that the right choices are made.
Northern Ireland will be the very last region of the UK to switch over. The October date means that audiences relying on Freeview won’t be able to watch Euro 2012 and the London Olympics in high definition as Freeview HD won’t be available until switchover in October. However, coverage in HD should be available on cable, Sky, Freesat, etc.
This public service announcement has been brought to you by the numbers 0 and 1!
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.