GOING DIGITAL

Switching to Saorview... and what it means for you

ALMOST 600,000 Irish households still receive some TV service through an aerial – indoors or on the roof. More than half of these rely exclusively on an aerial, and 28 per cent of that total are in the over-55s category.

The statistics paint a picture of an Irish TV landscape that, in the digital age, still leans heavily on the old analogue service. All will have to change, however, when, as EU policy dictates, Ireland's analogue signal is switched off by the end of next year. In a nutshell, this means that if you currently receive your RTÉ and TV3 channels via an aerial, and have no Sky, UPC or equivalent service, you will no longer be able to view Irish channels after 2012 without buying a set top box or special TV.

Ireland's digital replacement for the analogue service in place since 1961 is called Saorview. While the switchover isn't necessary until the end of next year, most of the population can receive Saorview at the moment, as the service has gone live.

Saor means 'free', but unfortunately there is a cost involved in moving from analogue to digital. To get Saorview you need to either buy a TV with a Saorview decoder built in, or buy a Saorview settop box to use with your existing TV. In some cases a new aerial is also needed; in most an existing TV aerial will do the trick but may need to be realigned. Once you purchase your set-top Saorview box or special Saorview TV the service is subscription-free, although you will continue to pay your TV licence.

At the moment Saorview set-top boxes can cost up to €100, but this price is likely to fall as the limited range available grows. In the UK, where Freeview has been running for a number of years, settop boxes have tumbled in price and can now be had for less than stg£20.

Saorview will not work with Freeview boxes but some generic Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) boxes will do the job. These are usually cheaper than the official Saorview receivers but lack some of the functions. If you go down this route, consult an expert for advice.

Saorview will offer crystal clear reception of all the usual Irish channels: RTÉ One, RTÉ Two, TV3, and TG4, plus RTÉ Two in high definition (HD); RTÉ Plus 1 (RTÉ One with one hour's delay); a kids' TV channel called RTÉjr; a rolling news channel called RTÉ News Now; a fancier version of Aertel called RTÉ Digital Aertel; and all 10 RTÉ radio channels, including the digital ones. Other channels are provided for, but will only be added according to demand.

Saorview will not give access to non-Irish TV services such as the BBC and ITV channels. If you don't have Sky, UPC or any of the other pay TV services, and you want the UK free-to-air channels, you will need Freesat (requiring a satellite dish and box) or Freeview, the UK equivalent of Saorview, requiring a separate set-top box or TV with built-in Freeview decoder, and available in some border and east coast areas via bigger aerials taking advantage of digital 'spillover' from Wales or the North, much like the analogue spillover that for many years gave Irish viewers free access to UK channels through aerials on the roof. There are 'combo' set-top boxes available which will enable viewers to see the Irish channels through Saorview and UK channels through Freesat. They require a feed from both a satellite dish and a TV aerial but give the advantage of just one remote, and one box, for the two different services.

It is estimated that between 75 and 80 per cent of households in Ireland have a pay-TV subscription, which, on the surface, would suggest that the digital switchover will have limited impact. However, the statistics don't take account of the large proportion of the population who have two, three or more TV sets, in kitchens and bedrooms. Unless these users have Sky multiroom or an equivalent pay-TV service, they will need to either change their sets to Saorview approved TVs or get a Saorview set-top box for each TV, if they want to view Irish channels everwhere in the house. Alternatively, they can split the output from the Saorview box to multiple TV sets, although this will mean only a single channel can be viewed on all sets at any given time.

Cost, then, could be a significant hurdle in many households. And, for some, it could be a hurdle too difficult to overcome in the current economic climate. The Government is looking into subsidising digital decoders for people who cannot afford a digital decoder, are on the dole or receiving social welfare payments, but this is by no means a done deal and it's not certain that funding will be found.

By the time the analogue signal is shut down next year, most viewers will be able to tune into Irish channels with a Saorview box. However, there will be small pockets with low coverage, or none at all. Residents of these areas will be able to access Ireland's digital channels only through Saorsat, a new free-to-air digital satellite system which RTÉ is rolling out to before the 2012 analogue switch off.

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