• British digital switchover proper set to begin

    In just a few hours time Britain’s Whitehaven & Copeland TV region will become the first in the country to switch off its analogue TV signal and go digital. This event will mark the start of a five-year process that will see the UK go entirely digital just in time for the quasi-deadline of 2012, set out by the EU on the matter.

    Naturally tomorrow morning’s switch and the proceeding days and weeks will be watched carefully by the British Government and TV industry and almost certainly by its Irish counterparts. Even in this region, which has been hand-picked because of its suitability for a fully digital service, there are worries about households being left with no service on some or all of their televisions and the problems and complaints that come to light in the coming days, along with the tactics used to solve them, will inform the digital roll-out for the rest of the UK and for Ireland, whenever that happens.

    The British DTT service, Freeview, launched in 2002 on the back of the defunct ITV Digital service. It began modestly enough and was helped greatly by the fact that much of the digital mux infrastructure already existed, yet it has still taken 5 years for the Government to take the plunge and will take a whole decade before the UK in its entirety is 100% digital.

    Ireland is a different beast, of course. It has one of the highest cable TV penetration rates in Europe and naturally has a much smaller population – on the other hand it has a far more dispersed population and in many areas a more complex terrain; as well as this the national TV infrastructure would need to be upgraded to carry digital.

    Of course getting a house to pick up digital is only the first step. While two thirds of all households have either a UPC or Sky Digital services it’s likely that the majority of all households only have digital in one or two points in the house, relying on analogue terrestrial broadcasts elsewhere.

    With these facts in mind it’s difficult to say how long Ireland’s digital roll-out and switchover will take but even if it were to take half as long as the UK’s the country would need a national service launch this year in order to make the EU’s 2012 deadline – this is almost certainly not going to happen.

    In all likelihood the Irish DTT service will begin to take real shape in 2008 and may even launch tenuously by the end of that year, probably in Dublin first. It’s clear that the DCENR and BCI are giving it their priority, however it remains to be seen how much progress this focus will give it.

    One of the last UK regions that will be switched over in 2012 will be Northern Ireland, the question now is how far behind the rest of the island will be.