Grumble 42

Digital TV.. the end game? (mid-2003)

 I sold a couple of new "Sky" satellite receivers in June.

It was tricky getting the Sky cards authorised for viewing the free-to-air channels.

Instead of Sky handling this, a lady at a BBC call centre eventually sorted it out. Initially I tried an automated feature, typing in numbers on the telephone as requested by a recording. It didn't work. I called a real person a week later, after waiting needlessly for the period of "up to 4 working days" to elapse, and this did the trick. BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five all appeared within a few hours.

During the intervening period I mentioned the difficulty to my supplier and he seemed anxious that we hadn't sorted out reception. Why?

The answer is in several parts ...

Because of an "illegal" restriction imposed in part by US businesses, some transmissions from UK television stations must be scrambled if broadcast by satellite. That is because these transmissions can be received anywhere in the satellite's transmission footprint. Most footprints are European-wide so BBC1, for example can be received in Spain besides the desired area of the UK. This contravenes the conditions imposed, for example, by certain film distributors.

A new satellite, very close to the one used by Sky, has recently been launched and this has the facility for much narrower beams. Basically a beam can be tailored to cover the UK and little else. This is not altogether a bad thing because the tighter the beam, the less power required to illuminate it. However, ex-pats or British holiday-makers in Spain, for example, who used to receive digital BBC1 pictures via their Sky dishes can no longer receive them with their standard 80cm dish. They can still receive Sky channels, but unless they invest in a very big dish they will get a "no signal being received", message when keying in "101".

Now that the BBC has a UK-only footprint, and no longer needs to encrypt transmissions it is not tied to the Sky scrambler and hence you now don't need to insert a card to get BBC. What about ITV, Channel 4 and 5? So far they have not moved to Astra 2D so are obliged to scramble, hence they are tied to whatever rules Sky dictates. The first new rule is to absorb these "free" channels into a Sky Package for which one has to pay a lot of money (compared with nothing, one had to pay previously). The "no subscription £100 installation, free digibox", customers will soon have to cough up around £170 a year in order to continue to receive those previously free channels.

All this is connected to market forces and the monopolistic position in which Sky finds itself after hopeless and amateurish government manoeverings some years ago. Unfortunately Sky, in their now dominant market position, are inadvertently being aided by certain US companies that will not sell their products without stringent conditions. I wonder for how long these anti-consumer rules will apply? Oddly, the use of pirate viewing cards may start to become more widespread as pressures to receive TV pictures without extra costs increases. The rules about these cards are unclear when it comes to their use outside the area for which transmissions are aimed and I wonder how many holidaymakers will latch onto, for example Spanish or French-made pirate Sky cards, when browsing through such offerings abroad?

Another twist is also taking place. Terrestrial Digital broadcasts are being increased in power. Many are now 20KWatts, a level of 4 times the agreed maximum level calculated to prevent interference to analogue transmissions. What about people in poor signal areas that had the option of switching to satellite? Now they will have to pay double just to maintain their minimum requirement of watching all 4 or 5 national broadcasts WITHOUT digital interference. Just a couple of weeks ago I was called to see a problem Channel 4 picture. In this area the new 20KW digital transmissions are squeezed in-between the analogue transmissions resulting in a kind of net-curtain effect overlaid on what were once crystal clear pictures. Because of trees (this is the New Forest after all) one can get selective reductions in signal strength so that an adjacent digital can affect the weaker analogue one, or unwanted effects in an aerial booster causes cross-modulation of adjacent signals.

The answer may be for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 to sever their link with Sky and to move to UK-footprint beams on Astra 2D. They can then remove "the need for" scrambling and their dependence on Sky encryption. Satellite will prove, by far, to be the best way of getting 100% coverage of the UK, although technological and cost-reduction advances must be made in order to continue the multi-TV households to which we are accustomed.

Feb 2004

Sky pulled the plug on their "free subscription" viewers sometime in mid-2003. These viewers were mainly people that had paid £100 for a free digibox and had to stump up cash for the installation. Also included were people that had bought their own digiboxes and had a dish erected outside of the Sky scheme, and of course countless ex-pats in Spain or elswhere that needed their daily ration of BBC or ITV.

One day a message appeared on their screens to the effect that they all had to pay for a subscription or do without.... except BBC channels, that is, which were now outside Sky's control on an adjacent satellite. Lots of customers complained to me and I sympathised and suggested they considerFreeview or else write to their MP. It seems a lot of viewers may have done the latter, as I suspect Sky were asked to re-instate the free card, which they did on payment of a fee of around £25 for five years. Lots didn't bother and switched to Freeview. Some didn't have to do either... these were the lucky few that had organised their viewing card via the BBC, when for a short time, the corporation were empowered to issue cards for viewing free channels" when the BBC offerings were still encrypted.

I think Sky's clampdown came at just the right time to help the BBC's Freeview initiative.

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