Digital Switchover, Freeview et al.

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Update 30/11/2007 - More news on BBC FreeSat (at end)

Digital Switch Over

With Digital TV now reaching about 70% of UK homes and Analogue Switch Off looming ever closer everyone needs to be aware of one very simple fact IF YOU DO NOT ACT SOON YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO RECEIVE ANY TELEVISION PROGRAMMES

And if that is not clear enough, let me put it another way. It means;
  • No BBC1.
  • No BBC2,
  • No ITV.
  • No Channel 4.
  • No Five.
  • No more Doctor Who or New Tricks or Eastenders.
  • No more University Challenge or Egg Heads or Natural World.
  • No more Coronation Street or Kingdom or The Bill.
  • No more Countdown.
  • No more House or Shark or CSI or Law and Order.
In short. Nothing.
That's Right, Nothing!
If you do not have some means of receiving Digital TV you will get Zip. Zilch. Nada. No TV at all just 24 hour snow on all channels.

Here in the South West TV Region the analogue television signals will be switched off in 2009 so we have about two years to sort things out...
People in the Meridian, London, Tyne Tees and Ulster TV regions have got it easy, they have until 2012 before they go Digital and lose their analogue signals.
However people in the Border TV region better start worrying as they will be losing their signal next year!

What Do I Need To Do?

Well, that depends if you want to continue watching television on not.

If you don't then just sit back and do nothing. All your analogue TVs, VCRs, DVD / HDD recorders will be turned into glorified snow machines because that will be all you will be able to receive on them! No TV, just snow...

However, if you DO want to continue watching television programmes [and I assume the majority of you do] you will need to buy some digital TV equipment. Exactly what, and how much you spend, depends on a number of things;
  • How many televisions do you have?
    • Do they have SCART or S-Video sockets?
  • How many VCRs do you have?
    • Do they have SCART or S-Video sockets?
  • Do you have any HDD / DVD Recorders?
    • Do they have SCART or S-Video sockets?
  • Do you have SKY / Satellite?
    • Do you have a viewing card?


There are basically three ways of receiving Digital TV in the UK;
  • Freeview using a Set Top Box
  • Freeview using a Digital TV
  • Digital Satellite

The Set Top Box

These are, usually, little Boxes that sit on Top of your television Set [hence the name].

Their sole purpose is to convert those new fangled digital signals coming down your aerial wire that your analogue televsion simply doesn't understand into good old analogue signals that they do. Nice and Simple.

  • Cheap
  • Simple to connect
  • Often have good AV connectivity
  • Can [usually] control a VCR through SCART
  • RF Out [if available] can feed the same signal to another TV, VCR, UHF distribution amplifier etc.
  • It's a separate box which needs its own power socket
  • As such it needs to be connected to the TV, VCR etc. by SCART / aerial lead etc.
  • It needs to be visible for remote control operation
  • Some can be complicated to be program for timed recordings

The Digital Television

This is the new generation of television. They only understand digital transmissions. Plug them into the mains, connect up the aerial and voila! Digital Television in all its glory!

  • The simplest way of getting Digital TV
  • Neat and convenient in a single package
  • Expensive
  • If used with a VCR via SCART will only record the progamme being watched on the TV

Digital Satellite

When analogue TV is finally switched off in 2012 there will be quite a large number of homes [including the whole of the UK Channel Islands!] who will not be able to get Freeview. For these people there may be no option but to go with Digital Satellite. There will be three options available;
  • BBC FreeSat
  • Sky FreeSat
  • Sky

BBC FreeSat

This is a 'not for profit' consortium headed by the BBC and the other ITV companies are already joining up. The aim is to produce an alternative to Sky and all current terrestial TV channels have either signed up or have indicated they will sign up when their existing contracts with Sky expire.

A Freesat STB will be required to view this service which will have its own EPG (Electronic Programme Guide). The boxes are to be manufactured by third parties and sold in shops and other retail outlets. This is the same distribution model that has worked so well for Freeview.
The basic service is guaranteed to be Free To Air (FTA) with the only costs being a one off charge for the STB and installation of the dish. It is highly likely that the platform will be used to add additional Pay TV channels in the same way that ' Top Up TV' has been piggy backed onto the basic Freeview service.

Current indications are that the service will be launched in Spring 2007 and fully operational by Autumn 2008 but as STBs are not yet available this may be subject to change.
The fact that the BBC are fully committed to this service (which has the backing of their Trust) and the other terrestial broadcasters are interested in saving the fees they currently pay to Sky for the use of their service bodes well for the success of the FreeSat service. Additional BBC channels including quality HD content will be added as the service matures.

When available, the BBC FreeSat service will most probably be the best choice for the majority of people unable to get Freeview.

  • No ongoing subscription charges for basic channel package.
  • Will support HDTV.
  • Not yet available.
  • Full channel line up not yet known.
  • STB features and facilities not yet known.

Sky FreeSat

This is the Sky service which allows you to watch Free To Air (FTA) and Free To View (TFV) channels carried by Sky for a one off charge. The charge is £20 for a card (if you already have a satellite dish and box) or £150 if Sky have to supply and fit the dish and box as well as the card.

    If you have a dish and box that that was previously used for Sky you are already able to receive the FTA channels (most BBC channels; 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. plus a number of others, mainly advertising and shopping).
    Just plug it in and start watching!
    If you were previously a Sky subscriber and you still have your card it will enable you to receive the FTV channels (Those covered by the license fee; ITV 1, 2, 3, 4, 2+1, 3+1, Channel 4, Five etc.) at no extra cost.
    Please Note:
      If your card has been out of the box or the box has been unplugged for more than a couple of weeks the card may have lost the programme / channel data. If this happens the card will have to be reactivated and this can be done in one of three ways;
      1. Phone Sky on an 0870 number,
      2. Activate the card using the hidden engineer menu of your Sky box or
      3. Ask a friend with a current Sky subscription to activate the card in their Sky box.
        This may not be an option as it can take up to 24 hours to update the card and your friend will not be able to view any of their expensive Sky subscription channels while your card is in their box!

    You should be aware that a lot of Sky cards are offered on eBay.
    Many of these have grossly misleading descriptions ie: they imply you will be able to get some or all of the Sky channels. While these may be genuine cards and they may give you access to the FTV channels ( NOT the subscription / pay channels) there is no guarantee whatsoever that they will work at all or, if they do work on receipt, that they will continue to work in the event of Sky making changes to their service. Which they do on a regular basis.
    If you are in any doubt about the authenticity of a Sky card listed on eBay or cannot afford to lose even a small amount of money, you should buy your 'Sky FreeSat' card from Sky themselves.
  • No ongoing subscription charges.
  • You already have all the necessary equipment should you decide to upgrade to Sky subscription services anytime in the future.
  • £150 installation and set up cost
  • Possible deluge of junk mail from Sky with offers to upgrade to Sky subscription services.

Sky Subscription

Sky offer a comprehensive range of Subscription TV packages delivered [primarily] by satellite.

  • Well established platform
  • A lot more channels than Freeview
  • Works with analogue TVs, VCRs, etc.
  • It's expensive
  • And it's expensive
  • Did I mention that it's expensive?

What's best for me?


If you only have one or two televisions the simplest solution is to buy a Set Top Box (STB) for each television.
If your television is old and doesn't have SCART, S-Video or some other form of AV IN you will need an STB which outputs the Freeview signal to the RF Out (UHF Out or Aerial Out) socket. The STB is then connected to the TV's RF In (UHF In or Aerial In) socket.
In this case you should make sure your STB has an RF Modulator feature. This feature is not very common and some STBs that claim to have it actually don't eg: the British made Oggle STB.

STBs that I know to have a functioning RF Modulator are;
  • Thomson DTI 2300
  • Thomson DTI 6300-16 DVR
  • And most Humax STBs and DVRs
If you have more than one STB they should be 'daisy chained' together. Plug the aerial lead into the RF In socket of the first STB and take a lead from the RF Out socket to the RF In socket of the second STB. This can be continued for a third or fourth STB but as the signal will degrade a little for each STB you daisy chain through you might need a better aerial or an aerial amplifier. All of your STBs will need to have the RF Loop Through feature for this to work. But, luckily, most STBs have this facilty.


Whether you realise it or not, all VCRs include a TV tuner which is why you can record one programme on the VCR while watching a different programme on your television.
After Analogue switch off you will still be able to use your VCR to play back prerecorded tapes but you won't be able to record the television programmes coming through your aerial any more.
You will, however, be able to record directly from your STB using the SCART socket if your VCR has one.
However, if your STB has an RF Modulator it is possible to route the output through the VCR to the TV and record and playback through the aerial socket as before.
Note, however, that you will be restricted to recording the Freeview channel you are watching on the TV you will NOT be able to watch one channel while recording another unless you buy a second STB especially for your VCR.
Note also that most [all?] STBs include programme timers which allow them to change channels automatically at set times and dates ( like a VCR or Sky box). Some STBs set the timer directly from the EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) and work on a 'per programme' basis whilst other STBs operate more like conventional VCR timers where you set the start and stop date and times manually.
Additionally, some STBs are able to control your VCR through the SCART socket. ie: the STB automatically switches the VCR into record mode at the start of an STB programme timer event and off again at the end.

    If you are serious about recording Digital TV you will (eventually) have to consider a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) which is basically a VCR with one or more Freeview tuners built in which records onto a Hard Disk Drive instead of cassette tape, A DVR offers many advantages over a traditional VCR such as;
    • Better quality recordings that don't degrade with age
    • Your recordings are named making them easier to find
    • You can record all the episodes of a series with one timer setting
    • Twin tuner models allow you to record two programmes at the same time and even watch a recording while you're doing that!

    Another incentive to discard your old VCR is the simple fact that not only you can't buy them anymore but blank and pre-recorded tapes are getting harder to find than an honest politician!


A final point to note here is your aerial. Whether it be on your roof, in your attic or somewhere else it is most likely something you rarely [if ever] think about. Most people don't even consider it unless it is blown down during a storm!
The industry line here is "your aerial may require upgrading to receive Freeview..." and, to put it bluntly, it might.

But I wouldn't be be too worried, our house is ancient, the aerial is barely attached to the window frame and flaps around in a strong breeze yet we get an acceptable signal. Ok, so it breaks up a bit during bad weather but it is fine most of the time. And, remember, they will be turning up the signal strength once the analogue signal is switched off...

The only way to know for sure is to try it. If you get Freeview with a good signal you DON'T need a new aerial. If you can't get Freeview with a good signal you DO need a new aerial.

The Digital Rip Off Conspiracy

Finally, beware the great digital TV rip off.

There seems to be a concensus in the Digital TV Industry that can be summed up in just four little words;
        TV GOOD. STB BAD.
In other words, if you go into a shop to buy a set top box you should be prepared for a fight. My experience has been that the Digital TV industry is putting pressure on the retail trade to talk down the Set Top Box and sell you a Digital TV instead.
While this may be great for them it is bad for the consumer and even worse for the environment. Every single day people are being conned into throwing away perfectly good analogue TVs and spending hundreds of pounds on new Digital TVs when they could be 'made Digital' with a simple Set Top Box costing only tens of pounds.


30/11/2007 Launch Date Confirmed
The future of the BBC FreeSat service was confirmed earlier this year with an expected launch date of March 2008 being announced. Test transmissions are rumoured to have already started on Astra 2D although the platform will use the Eurobird 1 satellite situated at 28.5° East because its far wider footprint [compared to Astra 2D] will provide digital TV to the channel Isles which currently has no Freeview or DAB coverage.

There is further good news in that Channel 4 have announced they will be supporting the venture. Their current encryption deal with Sky comes to an end at about the same time so their entire selections of channels will be available free and in the clear as on Freeview - all but Channel 4 are encrypted on Sky!

Although Five will not be there at the launch of BBC FreeSat [due to contractual obligations with Sky] it is believed slots will be reserved in BBC FreeSat's EPG for Five's current channels [Five, Five Life and Five US]. It is anticipated they will join the service when their contract with Sky expires but that has yet to be confirmed.

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