At 10am on Wednesday October 24, Ireland closed down its analog television service. On Tuesday night, analog services in Northern Ireland, the last region of the UK to change over, also closed. With that a pioneering BBC service, the first in the world when introduced 38 years ago, ceased. However a new service started in Northern Ireland which enables viewers to watch four channels from the Republic transmitted from within Ulster, a result in part of the Good Friday agreement.
Digital terrestrial television goes under the generic name Freeview in the UK. Ireland adopted a similar name Saorview - saor being the Irish Gaelic for free. The timing of the switch is no co-incidence as being close neighbors the two services have to coordinate frequencies to avoid interference. Although both use the European DVB system, the two are not entirely compatible - more for techies below the squiggle.
RTÉ, the Irish state broadcaster, ran a special news program showing the exact moment of analog switch-off, somewhat ironically effected at the click of a mouse. (The exact moment is at roughly 5:00 minutes, there is a short history of the first installations 50 years ago from about 21:00 minutes)
Earlier on Tuesday evening the BBC shut down the 38 year old Ceefax service that their engineers had invented. They had been trying to find a way of transmitting subtitles for the hearing impaired using the "spare" lines not used for the displayed picture in the 625 line PAL analog system. They discovered that they could send full pages of text, about 4 paragraphs worth, or blocky pictures. The public service for suitably equipped televisions started on September 23, 1974. It meant that for the first time, viewers could catch up with the latest news or weather forecasts without having to wait for the next scheduled program, arguably the very first 24 hour news service on television.
A few years later, the BBC used pages from the service with a music background instead of a blank screen overnight. Incidentally, this continued right up until Monday night despite most of the UK having switched to all digital. By the mid 1980s almost every TV sold in the UK had the ability to receive Ceefax or Teletext, the commercial companies' version.
With the introduction of digital television at the end of the 1990s, the BBC gave the whole service make-over. Its digital text service, called "red button" after the way you access it using the remote control, carries on as the "son of Ceefax". It has the ability to show full color photographs tho most of the graphics are used for maps and charts. Some European countries still use the original service and this is a Dutch emulator that picks up their broadcast information. For an idea of the blocky nature of the maps, use your mouse to click on 703 and then "gaan" using the buttons to the right of the "screen".
Digital terrestrial television (DTT) has been transmitted in the UK since November 15, 1998. The system used was DVB-T, the European standard although it is important to know that there are two different ways of compressing the digital data, roughly analogous to the methods used in DVDs and Blu-ray discs.
The UK uses the earlier MPEG-2 compression "codec" for its standard definition digital service. It is also used by the American ATSC.
A later development of DVB-T, the so-called Nordig standard, uses the more advanced MGEG-4 compression. This is the standard decided by Eire.
Towards the end of the 2000s, the DVB group introduced a new version of its terrestrial "flavour" called DVB-T2. This enables much more information to be transmitted - up to 5 HD channels on one frequency (called a "multiplex" or "mux" for short) if MPEG-4 compression is used. The UK was the first to start regular transmissions in November 2008 although the first domestic set top boxes were only commercially available from March the following year. (The UK market is much more amenable to self installed separate digital boxes as upgrades rather than buying new televisions). DVB-T2 receivers are backwards compatible to DVB-T but not the other way round; in much the same way that Blu-ray players will play DVDs but not vice versa.
DVB-T2/MPEG-4 is now the de facto standard for countries newly introducing digital television. The whole of the South Africa Development Council area is to use it, indeed it is illegal to import DVB-T only televisions into Kenya. It will also be used to broadcast, in standard definition, four of the Eire channels from three sites in Northern Ireland, called the NImux or Northern Ireland Multiplex transmitters, although many in Republican areas already have aerials installed to get the old RTÉ analog services from the same sites as Saorview.
The decisions about the systems used in the UK and Ireland mean there are three types of set top boxes for DTT:
Freeview: DVB-T/MPEG-2 (69 free TV channels plus 11 BBC and 13 commercial radio stations)
Saorview: DVB-T/MPEG-4 (8 TV channels plus 10 RTÉ radio channels)
Freeview HD: DVB-T2/MPEG-4 (HD simulcasts of BBC One, BBC Two, ITV1 (UTV in NI) and Channel 4 plus the standard Freeview service)
Note: several channels like BBC 3/CBBC, BBC4/Cbeebies and RTÉjr/RTÉ1+1 use the same digital bandwidth to "timeshare" to provide children's services in the daytime and general programming after 7pm.
This has left the consumers on the island of Ireland with some choices:
Apart from the areas served by the "NImux" transmitters, many in Northern Ireland can now watch the full Saorview services due to the increased power following analog switch-off. However, their standard Freeview box or television will not display Saorview pictures.
On the other hand, viewers in Eire can receive the full Freeview SD service if they have a Saorview box but they cannot receive the (current 4) Freeview HD channels.
One solution is to get a Freeview HD box which will receive all available services but will put the Saorview channels in the 800 sequence reserved for otherwise unidentified extra channels - or duplicates in areas where more than one transmitter can be received. A Freeview HD box is essential to receive NImux even though it is only SD.
Both countries have free to air (FTA) satellite services - freesat for the UK, Saorsat for Ireland but annoyingly they do not transmit from the same locations to avoid the Saorsat FTA channels being received in the UK - Sky encrypt these channels from the main UK cluster of satellites so they can sell both services in Eire.
On the mainland UK, coverage to less populated or difficult areas is often provided by relay transmitters. These have two muxes plus the HD mux rather than the 5 + 1HD muxes from the main transmitters, due to the owners of the commercial muxes not wanting to install the necessary equipment due to expense. This so-called "Freeview lite" service has the main public service broadcaster's channels but not some of the "digital channels". As the NImux is carrying a fewer Saorview channels than can be accommodated on the mux as the Irish stations are unwilling to pay for the transmitter facilities, that is often similarly called "Saorview lite".
Two new variations of personal video recorders have recently been launched onto the UK market. These integrate your recordings and the internet based catch-up services from the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and Five so that you can scroll back up to 7 days on the electronic program guide (EPG). If the program is available for catch-up or you have recorded it, you press a single button to watch it. The box either plays back from its hard disc or connects to your broadband service. The boxes will also receive internet protocol television (IPTV) services, either free or paid. The Freeview HD based version is called YouView. The freesat version is called "free time".