This is my third Irish media prediction for 2009:
At some point in 2009 the Irish Government will accept that the EU-recommended deadline for the digital TV switch-over in 2012 is too ambitious for Ireland to meet. They may do so for their own financial reasons, for the financial reasons of the DTT-contract holder or simply because they have re-assessed the realities of the roll-out but it is already clear that they need to.
Realistically, Ireland has been unlikely to hit the deadline for some time now. Despite this the Department of Communications has repeatedly stated that it can and will switch of the analogue deadline by 2012, along with most if not all of Europe.
The problem is that Ireland still does not have a DTT system, bar a limited trial. In addition to this the company that won the tender has been strangely quiet in recent months on the issue, despite the fact that it initially marked January 2009 as the service’s planned launch date. Boxer’s DTT service is still anticipated to launch at some point in this year, although it is hard to be certain even on this given the recent silence.
There is every possibility that the company will need to re-think its strategy in a very different economic climate to the one that existed when it won the contract and that could have implications for the launch and roll-out time of the eventual service. It could even have implications for the tender process.
At the moment the silence mean any assumption here is just conjecture, however. Perhaps their lack of visible activity is as a result of the hard work they’re doing behind the scenes to get this service off the ground. However even assuming it does get the service out in a timely manner this year, its plan will see DTT become available in a phased basis across the country with total coverage only occurring in 2012. This means that the company will have to establish a service and then ensure total take-up within the same year – and that’s assuming take up is equally strong and prompt in areas covered under early roll-out plans.
One thing Ireland has in its favour is its high rate of households already using paid-for digital systems. Roughly 2/3 of all houses in the country have a Sky or UPC contract, so there are less houses wholly dependent on the analogue broadcasts in question. Equally we have a relatively small population and a relatively small island to cover, so the equipment needed to broadcast should be a little easier to establish nation-wide.
Of course these could be seen as negatives too. If 1/3 of the population has decided against upgrading its service beyond analogue all of these years, it may be difficult to convince them to do so now – even if there is no subscription on the basic package of channels. As well as this we have an extremely low population density by European standards, so more equipment will be needed to cover less people. Finally, assuming that households with an existing digital subscriptions will not be impacted upon by the analogue switch-off is invalid – many households have one Sky or UPC box and a number of other sets around the house using aerials to pick up basic channels.
If you look across to the UK’s roll-out of a DTT service you will see just how hard it is going to be for Ireland to follow suit in such a tight time frame. The UK naturally has more people to cater for and a larger land-mass, however their Freeview service has been up and running since 2002 and had a pre-existing, albeit small, user base left hanging over from the ITV Digital service it replaced.
Since then it has been heavily promoted and the country has already started its digital switch-over campaign in earnest, despite the fact that it is also aiming for 2012 as its final deadline. The first region (the Border between Scotland and England) is already in the process of switching – before Ireland has even started the ball rolling – and despite all of the money spent on awareness campaigns people in the country are complaining about not having enough information or time before the switch.
Ireland is faced with a near-impossible task if it wants to shut down analogue by 2012 – it either has to roll out the service nationally before the end of 2010 and put a huge amount of resources into promoting it afterwards, which it will not, or flick the switch before people have made the move and anger the masses.
Given the current situation one could even bet that there will be no commercial DTT service anywhere in Ireland before 2010 anyway and that no-one will have the money to promote or invest in it as much as they need to once it arrives.
Long story short the boat on a 2012 switch-over passed some time ago. In 2009 I predict the Government will stop pretending it hasn’t.