Brave new digital world gets off to a slow start
MEDIA & MARKETING:DIGITAL SWITCHOVER is nigh, which must mean that Saorview’s cartoon double act, Tommy and PJ, is not long for this world.
It’s been a long time coming – not the end of Tommy and PJ, but the great Europe-wide mission to switch off analogue television signals and free up the spectrum. This dates back to the mid-1990s, a time when we were still grappling with 2G, never mind salivating at the prospect of 4G.
Those were the days of Ceefax, the test card and boxy 4:3 aspect ratios; an era when credit sequences didn’t sprint to get to the ad break and people all over the land were still laughing about that time snooker commentator “Whispering” Ted Lowe told viewers: “For those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”.
The Government has had since then to plan the switch-off of the analogue signal and what it’s going to do with that part of the spectrum once it becomes “white space”. On Monday, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte posed for some fetching photographs by the oldest television transmission mast in the State, in Kippure, Co Wicklow, and implored the remaining 100,000 terrestrial-only households to go digital before their screens turn into a strangely calm field of dots.
The Department of Communications fears there are still “people who seem to think the switchover will not happen”. It’s also possible that they’re leaving it until the last minute – an approach that mirrors the Government’s own strategy on digital TV.
When Olympian Dame Mary Peters pulls the plug on analogue television in Northern Ireland at midnight next Tuesday, it will mark the end of a five-year UK switchover project. It’s got a much bigger population, of course, which perhaps necessitates the region-by-region switch-off process. But the fact that, say, the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven has had its analogue signal switched off for five years already isn’t the point – the point is that, five years ago, it actually had a free-to-air digital terrestrial television (DTT) service to switch to.
The BBC and the company now known as Arqiva launched Freeview, a free-to-air DTT service, a decade ago, allowing viewers to widen their channel horizons without forking out for Sky or Virgin. Here, the absence of DTT until Saorview’s debut in 2011 meant viewers simply upgraded from cable to digital cable, or added new layers to their Sky packages with every “Believe in better” Murdoch mailshot. Even since the modestly-resourced Saorview was set up, it has faced tough competition, from Sky’s sales teams in particular. Terrestrial homes previously immune to the charms of satellite have signed up to it instead.
Does it matter that Irish viewers are more likely to pay for television than their UK counterparts, or that the pay-TV sector enjoys higher average revenues per user than in most western European countries? Maybe not. But just as the BBC’s hand is strengthened by having an interest in Freeview, so too would RTÉ’s position be more convincing if the DTT platform it paid for had been around for longer and was in with a fighting chance.
Outwardly, the Department seems confident that TDs in rural constituencies won’t be inundated with angry farmers brandishing defunct aerials come next Wednesday morning, when an RTÉ One News Special and some yet unconfirmed razzmatazz within RTÉNL will mark the 10am switch-off. But the fact that Saorview is free-to-air but not free to set up presumably isn’t endearing the Government to set-top box shoppers.
Its own Going Digital awareness campaign (platform-neutral in accordance with EU rules) highlights the bigger picture – the auctioning of the vacated 800 Mhz spectrum band to various other telecommunications services, including a type of 4G known as LTE (long-term evolution) technology. “This will be important to help the economy and create more jobs,” it assures.
But how much it will help the economy is uncertain. Rabbitte’s claim only a year ago the switchover could net taxpayers €180 million was based on a ComReg estimate that “is no longer current”, the Department says.
The magic number will be known when ComReg completes the auction, which the regulator says it will do “as expeditiously as possible”.
For its part, the telecoms industry says 4G could be here already, if only the regulator hadn’t opted for a multi-band spectrum auction. Doing so meant the licensing of higher frequency, LTE-friendly spectrum bands has had to wait until the lower frequency analogue TV is switched off.
The first licence period is supposed to begin next February. But the chances of Irish broadband users getting LTE around then are slimmer than a flatscreen. Goodbye analogue; hello to a shiny new age of 4G? It’s not quite as simple, or as speedy, as that.