The UK’s digital switchover programme has been running for over two years. Analogue television transmissions have been switched off in a carefully planned sequence. With radio signals not respecting borders and boundaries – and frequencies being in short supply with analogue channels and digital Freeview multiplexes operating in parallel – Northern Ireland is the last in a batch of TV regions now able to complete its transition now that the jigsaw pieces in Scotland and Wales are in place.
I spoke recently to Digital UK's national manager in NI, Denis Wolinski, and he explained:
“They’re all places that required international coordination of frequencies. Tyne Tees is just a month before Northern Ireland; Meridian has just gone in the last month or so. They had to deal with European coordination, just as the UK and Ireland have to coordinate.”
With frequency and multiplex (bundles of Freeview channels) changes, Freeview users will have to re-tune on both the 10 October and 24 October to keep up with the changes.
If your TV aerial gets its signal from one of the main three transmitters (Divis, Brougher Mountain, Limavady), you should get over 40 television channels (plus radio). If you’re relying on one of the relay transmitters, it’ll be the core 15 channels – BBC One, BBC Two, UTV, Channel 4, Five, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC Parliament, BBC News, CBBC, CBeebies, itv2, UTV+1, E4 and More4 – plus radio. Anyone with a Freeview HD set top box and suitable TV should also receive the four Freeview HD channels: BBC One HD, BBC HD, UTV HD and 4 HD.
Note that the switchover won’t necessarily happen simultaneously at the stroke of midnight across all of NI’s transmitter sites. But it’ll be obvious when the analogue channels go dark.
With the analogue frequencies no longer in use, the Freeview signal will be boosted – massively – at the transmitters, which should help a lot of people currently living with less than perfect Freeview reception.
The last figures available from Ofcom show that 9% of homes in Northern Ireland still replied on the analogue TV signal on their main household TV. They’re the main people affected by switchover, along with families with second (and third) sets that don’t have access Freeview, satellite or cable. Just over a quarter (26%) of NI use Freeview on their main household TV. The rest primarily rely on satellite (51%) or cable (9%).
Digital switchover is an all island transition. While the Republic of Ireland has already been able to build out Saorview – its digital terrestrial TV transmitter network (fewer channels/multiplexes made the frequency clashes less of an issue), they too will finally switch off analogue transmission on 24 October, and marginally increasing their digital availability from 97% to 98%.
A recent survey [though I can't turn my hand to the source] showed that around 70% of people in Northern Ireland regularly watch RoI channels. After switchover, border areas will continue to be able to pick up digital signals from the south. While there’s coordination of dates, there are technology differences between the UK and RoI digital terrestrial solutions. Modern Freeview boxes – and in particular any branded as Freeview HD – will be able to decode the MPEG4 stream. Alternatively, Saorview set top boxes can be used.
Saorview offers eight channels: RTÉ One, RTÉ Two HD, TV3, TG4, 3e, RTÉ News Now, RTÉjr and RTÉ One +1.
Use a Freeview box, and the Saorview channels will have high channel numbers and red button features such as subtitles may not work. Use a Saorview box to pick up digital TV signals from both sides of the border and you’ll find the Freeview channels up high and red button features may not work. Or you could use two boxes.
Freeview transmitters on Black Mountain, Carnmoney Hill and Brougher Mountain will also transmit TG4, RTÉ One and RTÉ Two on a “mini-mux”. Note that TV3 isn’t included. You’ll need a Freeview HD-capable set top box or set to receive them. Due to rights restrictions, some sporting programmes and films may be unavailable. But it should extend the availability (and quality) of transmission of the three channels.
There’s information about coverage, channel availability, and how to retune different set top boxes on the Digital UK website or by phoning 08456 50 50 50. The information leaflet is available on the website in Irish and Ulster Scots (well worth a read tae get yer heed arund tae the deegital cheenge-ower). Digital UK's Denis Wolinski notes that there has been some demand from Irish language communities as well as North Antrim Ulster Scots heartland for printed copies of these translations. A shorter booklet is also helpfully translated into Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Simplified Chinese and Slovak.
If you rely on cable or satellite, then digital switchover is pretty irrelevant to you! But you might want to check that older neighbours and relatives are sorted out.
While not wanting to fall into the trap of hubris, Digital UK are confident that the NI switchover will be straightforward.
“We’ve gone through switchovers across the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, apart from Tyne Tees which goes [in September]. There have been minor hiccups here and there. Hopefully we’ve learnt from many of those and hopefully Northern Ireland will be a smooth transition.”
The Switchover Help Scheme offers discounted boxes to anyone who is aged over 75; or registered blind/partially sighted; or living in a care home for six months or more; or eligible for DLA, Attendance/Constant Attendance Allowance or Mobility supplement. In some cases it’ll be free. Call free on 0800 40 85 900. If the installer finds that Freeview signal will not be good, an alternative such as Freesat will be offered.