Digital TV system to be tested in Dublin

 

The Government will unveil a pilot digital television project in Dublin next month and announce plans to switch off the existing RTÉ analogue television service.

The launch of the test service has been delayed for months due to legal problems over licensing but it is now expected to begin broadcasting in Dublin later this year. It will enable consumers with a digital television to receive up to 12 television and radio channels for free without having to pay a subscription fee.

In an interview yesterday, Minister for Communications Noel Dempsey said the service would form the first stage of a nationwide roll out of a digital terrestrial television service.

"We hope to have up to 12 channels available on the system, all the national channels and an additional six or seven channels for TV, video or radio services."

It is not yet clear if British channels such as BBC and UTV will be available on the free service.

Mr Dempsey said that the Government would switch off RTÉ's existing analogue free-to-air television service sometime between 2010-2015. The final date chosen for switch-off would probably be closer to 2010 than 2015, he said.

Digital terrestrial television services offer better quality sound and pictures to consumers and the ability to provide a much greater variety of channels.

However, consumers will have to buy new digital televisions or digital set-top boxes to receive the service as older analogue sets cannot pick up a digital signal.

In Britain, where a similar digital terrestrial television service is running, digital set-top boxes cost between €50 to €100.

Mr Dempsey said the Government had no choice but to set up a digital terrestrial television service because the existing analogue would become redundant.

He said the availability of analogue televisions and equipment would shortly become scarce and prices of analogue equipment would then begin to rise sharply.

Just last year the Government failed to set a date to move to digital broadcasting, despite a call by the European Commission to unveil a plan for analogue switch-off. In a submission to the commission the Government said it would continue analogue broadcasts for the medium-term.

It noted that 38 per cent of households in the Republic still depend on analogue terrestrial broadcasting, and as many as 90 per cent of homes use a normal aerial for extra TV sets.

Mr Dempsey said the Government has not yet concluded an analysis of the cost of upgrading the existing RTÉ Networks system to broadcast digital.

Analysts have speculated that upgrading the existing network for digital would cost between €40 and €100 million depending on the type of service and the coverage requirements demanded.

The Government and RTÉ first began preparing a strategy to introduce digital television in the Republic in 1997. But the first attempt to hold a competition to entice a private operator to set up and run a system ended in failure in 2002.

One bidder, known as It's TV, entered negotiations with the State for the licence. However it could not meet all the criteria demanded by the Government.

The Government has so far spent €2.59 million on consultants in relation to the roll-out of digital television. RTÉ has also spent more than €6 million on its digital plans, which included the abandoned sale of its RTÉ Networks division in late 2002.

Mr Dempsey said the lengthy delay in establishing a digital television service was caused by the failure of the previous licence competition. But he said in some respects the Republic was lucky to avoid the huge amounts of cash that were lost in Britain with the failure of a similar project.

He said he was confident the project would now be delivered.

"The demonstration of a pilot digital television service could be regarded as the first stage in the long-term roll out of digital terrestrial television," he added.