Regular price increases from service providers, a greater range of choices and a feeling that there must be a cheaper alternative is leading many people to reconsider giving up what they previously had thought was impossible – their television package.
Yes, if you can still remember the day when you went from being a two-channel household to the wonder of having the BBC (Grange Hill! Only Fools and Horses! Match of the Day!), it's possible that the thought of going back to those limited days strikes fear into your heart.
Fear not, however, as there most definitely is an alternative to an expensive cable package – and it won’t limit your viewing choices too much. It will, however, require a little effort and this may be what prevents many us from switching. But maybe we could learn from the United States, where a trend for “cutting the cord” by ditching an expensive cable package is increasingly gaining pace.
How can I get free television?
When Irish television moved from analogue to digital back in 2011,
was introduced, offering free viewing for Irish television and radio channels, including
One and RTÉ 2,
was also added to the service when it launched earlier this year.
It’s a similar service to the one you might have enjoyed before the arrival of cable and is undoubtedly limited in the viewing options it offers. However, as Saorview spokesman Jim Higgins notes, a survey of audiences viewing behaviour recently found that 97 per cent of the most-watched programmes by Irish viewers were all found on Saorview channels. So maybe having fewer channels won’t impact on what you actually watch: after all, how often do you watch the Quest or TLC channels?
It seems that an increasing number of people think so: when it launched in 2011, Saorview had about 500,000 customers, but Higgins notes that this has since grown by about 100,000.
Indeed, David Maher, director of Louth- based Freetv, estimates his business has been up by about 15 per cent to 20 per cent in recent months thanks to people seeking alternatives to Sky and UPC.
What about BBC and Channel 4?
While Saorview is limited to Irish-only channels, it’s easy enough to combine it with other freely available channels across Europe (see panel). This means that giving up your cable package won’t preclude you from watching UK terrestrial channels, and the choice is wider than you might think, including not just BBC 1 and 2, but also 3 and 4, as well
and all its iterations, including E4 and More4.
To access these channels you will need to upgrade your Saorview package by getting a satellite dish. In addition you’ll need a combination box or a TV with a satellite tuner. However, as Maher notes, if you already have a Sky satellite dish this can be used to access free-to-air channels, so you won’t need to buy a new one.
However, depending on where you live, you may find that you don’t need a satellite dish, as houses along the sea on the east coast and close to Northern Ireland may be able to pick up UK channels with an aerial.
How can I get it?
According to Saorview, 98 per cent of Irish people can now get the service, but there are a couple of factors that will determine your suitability.
You have to check if to see if the service is available in your area. You can do this here: http://iti.ms/1DQwEYc.
The next step is to get an aerial. If you have one already, Saorview says “the majority” of homes with an UHF aerial will be able to receive a signal. Otherwise you’ll have to buy one and get it installed, which can add to the cost.
According to Higgins, in addition to getting an aerial installed on your roof you can also put one on top of your television or in your attic, although this may depend on your location. Living in the Dublin area, he has one in his attic and has no problem with his signal.
Finally, you have to decide on the equipment you want. If you have a new Saorview-approved television, you won’t need anything additional. Otherwise you will need to get a set-top box. If you want the satellite option (ie BBC) you’ll need to ensure that either your television has a satellite tuner – and Maher says this is becoming the case among the newer models – or you’ll have to get a combo box.
Saorview has also introduced a recording facility through the Saorview Plus+ digital recorder. Just like with Sky or UPC, you can pause live viewing and record up to 320 hours of programming. Unlike UPC, however, you can only record two channels rather than four, while UPC also points out that another inconvenience of giving up digital TV is that you’ll need a different box for your broadband, and your television access, which can clutter up your living room.
While the record service is limited to Saorview channels, Higgins notes that with some combination boxes additional recording facilities can be acquired through a USB key.
A more advanced box is also available which will also automatically tune the channels each time an adjustment is made.
“You just plug it in the first time and you’ll never have to [tune it] again,” says Maher.
However, this can be expensive at about €250, and a cheaper option for tech-friendly people is to buy a Linux box for €150 and download an automatic update on to it.
Saorview is also working on a new technological advance for its platform, which it expects to launch in the coming months.
Start-up fees for Saorview will vary depending on the equipment you already have, but the beauty of it is that you pay once only – after that, you and your family can benefit from having one bill fewer coming into the house. Higgins estimates the costs to be between €200 and €250 to get up and running.
If you don’t have an aerial you will have to pay to get one installed, so it may make sense to try to get it as part of a package.
According to Maher, a combo box will set you back about €60 to €150, while a TV aerial will cost between €25 and €40. Harvey Norman, for example, has a box for €69, or €166 for the satellite version, which includes digital channels such as BBC and Channel 4. Saorview-approved TVs start at about €120 for the smallest version. The advantage of an approved TV is that you won’t need an additional box, and if you opt for one with a satellite tuner you won’t need a combination box either. On top of this you can expect to pay about €75 to €100 for installation, and about €40 for the cheapest available satellite dish.
Opting to do it yourself – and Free TV has 2,500 free videos you can watch to help you do so – will save you money
“If you do it yourself you can probably get it done for around €125,” says Maher.
Can I top it up?
If you like the on-demand service you get with UPC or Sky to catch up on a series you may have missed, this might be an inhibiting factor in forgoing your subscription. Another factor that might stand in your way is so-called “transactional video”, which allows you to “rent” new-release movies via your television, with the cost of the rental added to your monthly bill.
But there are other options out there that are even more comprehensive.
With an estimated 260,000 Irish subscribers, Netflix, the maker of the House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, is making inroads into the Irish market. At €8.99 a month for the standard package (plus an initial free month) it's not a bad option to top up Saorview. Doing so will add an annual cost of €107.88 to your TV bill.
Something else to watch out for is the potential arrival of Amazon Prime instant video in Ireland. A streaming service similar to Netflix, it is currently available in the UK, where it costs £5.99 a month.
It also makes its own content, including the award-winning show Transparent, and it has signed up no less than Woody Allen to make his own TV show.
And there are also free options, such as RTÉ Player and Channel 4’s 4oD.
To access Netflix or any of these online television services you'll need broadband first, and secondly access to the internet on your television. A smart television will fulfil this but if you have an older television you'll need a device such as an Apple TV (€99) or a Google Chromecast (€39).
Savings from “cutting the cord” can be substantial, particularly given recent price increases. UPC, for example, recently announced its third price increase in less than two years, bringing the cost of a typical TV, broadband and phone package up to about €100 a month.
Let’s take a basic customer with UPC, paying €35 a month (discounted to €15 for first four months) for 50 channels, plus its new streaming service My Prime and a recording box. Over the course of a year, this service will cost you €420, far in excess of the €200 or so Saorview start-up costs, which may be as low as €60 if you already have an aerial and can instal a box yourself. Indeed, over 10 years you could save yourself about €4,000 by switching.
If you have a package with Sky or UPC that includes your home phone and broadband service you may be less inclined to change. However, you can still save money by doing so.
Consider a person on Sky’s original “bundle & fibre & talk freetime” which gives free off-peak calls to landlines, a 2GB monthly broadband allowance and Sky Atlantic. At €69 a month this comes to €828 a year.
For €35 a month (€15 for the first four months) with UPC you get broadband with a 30GB usage allowance, free off-peak local and national fixed landline calls, as well as 400 off-peak minutes per month to fixed landline numbers in 22 countries. On an annual basis this comes to €420, and no installation fee applies.
Combine this with start-up costs of €250 for a UK channel-friendly Saorview option, plus Netflix at €8.99 a month, and you’ll be looking at costs of €778 in year one. Certainly not enough to make you switch perhaps, but the following year you’ll save about €300, or about €2,700 over 10 years.
If you're an aficionado of Sky Sports, however, switching becomes a little bit more difficult however, as it's difficult to replicate sports coverage. What's on . . . Saorview RTÉ 1 RTÉ 2 TV3 TG4 3e UTV Ireland RTÉ News Now RTÉ Jr RTÉ+1
What's on . . . Freeview What's on BBC1-4 ITV 1-4 Channel 4 E4 CBBC Dave More 4 Film4 SkyNews