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Digital Signals

24 October 2007

This month sees the start of a technological change that will affect every home in the UK and most of its business. Jane Fenwick asks Digital UK what it means for owners and occupiers of business and residential properties

FROM THIS MONTH THE FIRST DISTRICT IN THE UK will make the switch from analogue to digital TV signals. Copeland, the Cumbrian region around Whitehaven will switch in two phases - the first on October 17th and the second on November 14th. Copeland is the test bed for the whole digital switchover programme that runs through to 2012 when the last TV region will have its analogue signal switched off.

The 25,000 strong community in Copeland was chosen because it has a clearly defined terrestrial coverage with little TV signal overlap from other regions and it has a good mix of households in rural and urban areas. It is served by three transmitters - Whitehaven (Bigrigg), Gosforth and Eskdale Green - all of which have been made ready for the switchover. The Border TV region of which Copeland is one part, has a geography that has meant that an above average percentage of its 820,000 population does not have any access to digital terrestrial television (DTT) and they will be offered the service as an option for the first time.

Currently about 84 per cent of UK households have selected digital TV for at least one TV set on one of several sources available. The Border region is due to switch off its analogue signals in 2008 and will be the first complete TV region to do so. It is the second largest ITV region in the country and covers areas in England, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Since May last year Digital UK, the organization established by the UK's main broadcasters to manage the changeover, has been rolling out its public information campaigns through letter drops to households, advertisements in the local press, public meetings and via highly effective switchover reminders that pop up as captions on analogue TV screens. Digital UK is also responsible for coordinating the engineering work necessary to upgrade more than 1,150 transmitters across the country, and it works with retailers and aerial installers to make adequate provision for meeting the demand for equipment and services as the switchover date approaches, and with charities, local authorities and other community organisations.

The Government and the BBC have set up a Help Scheme for Whitehaven and the BBC have appointed, Capita to ensure that the over 75s, the severely disabled and registered blind and partially sighted have one TV upgraded to digital either free of charge or at a reduced rate. For everyone else there is no financial assistance to change or upgrade aerials, convert their TV sets with a digi-box or replace the video or DVD recorder to a digital recorder. About half of households will incur some expense in obtaining new equipment, but only 5 per cent will need new aerials. Even analogue equipment recently purchased will need upgrading or replacing. In 2006 1.9m analogue recorders including VCRs and analogue DVD-Rs were sold in the UK. People should look for the digital tick on equipment they are purchasing and it will work now, during and after the Switchover.

Each householder in the UK has on average more than two TVs, but the problem for commercial property owners and managers, hoteliers, social and private landlords, homes for the elderly and other care homes, schools, universities, student lodgings, holiday homes, etc., is on a much bigger scale and may give rise to considerable planning effort and costs.

According to Digital UK, some 20 per cent of people in the UK live in flats but 97 per cent have never spoken to their landlord about provision of the TV signal. There are around six million flats in the UK, of which half are tenants of social landlords, 25 per cent are private rented and 25 per cent are privately owned. Digital UK has found that flat dwellers are less likely to be connected to digital TV than the national average.

Private landlords have proved to be the most elusive group that Digital UK has had to reach, and the sector presents the most complex both technically and organizationally to convert to digital. Many blocks of flats or multi-tenanted business premises have a shared aerial or dish or communal TV system to feed multiple households/tenants. Some communal systems can serve tower blocks or entire estates of several thousand households. Unless the receiving system is updated, none of the users on older systems will be able to receive the TV digital signal once the analogue has been switched off.

Digital UK has a website propertymanagers devoted to property managers that provides detailed advice on the options available to landlords with and without communal systems.

The standard communal TV options are MATV - Master Antenna - and IRS - Integrated Reception Systems. A modern MATV system can carry both analogue and digital terrestrial broadcasts both free to view and subscription, FM radio and DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) but not satellite signals. Older MATV systems are unsuitable for carrying digital signals and will need to be modified or replaced. The IRS systems on the other hand can also carry satellite and terrestrial analogue and DTT signals but they cost more to install than the MATV systems. IRS systems can be enhanced to carry a range of other services including video from security cameras and door entry systems, on line services such as email, internet access, and connection to e-government services.

Deciding what options are the best for the Switchover will vary from property to property, and ideally any decision should be taken on receipt of technical advice and in full consultation with residents. However, it may be necessary to fully understand the range of services that residents need now and in the future before deciding on a switchover investment.

Upgrading MATV systems may just involve adapting the existing distribution network, but if it is old it may provide insufficient screening giving rise to a distorted signal, or have excessive signal loss and need to be replaced. Cabling installed more than 20 years ago will probably have to be replaced.

When upgrading from a MATVsystem to an IRS system, all distribution cabling will have to be replaced. In IRS systems, a quarter of the satellite signals are carried on each of four parallel trunk cables with the terrestrial signal carried on the fifth trunk. This is called a five wire system. The tenants connect their TV or DTT receiver to the socket outlet in their premises; the receiver sends commands to a multiswitch which connects it to the most appropriate of the four trunk cables to deliver the required signal. In smaller systems only a single switch may be needed usually in the roof close to the aerials. Larger systems can have multiple multiswitchesusually with 12 outputs each. Multiple multi switches are connected to a common backbone or trunk cables which would normally, for example in tower blocks, run through the central riser or be fixed to the outside of the building. It could be cheaper to consider locating multiswitches on each floor to reduce the amount of cabling.

However, with only a single cable from the multiswitch to the tenant's outlet, only one satellite receiver can be connected at one time. This means that using a personal video recorder (Sky+) which is designed to allow one programme to be watched while recording another, or the use of two satellite viewing TV sets in one household, will require two separate feeds. Installing two separate feeds to each household, each feed occupying its own output on the multiswitch with a separate cable, can increase system costs but is becoming standard practice and expected of a new system.

Furthermore, with an increasing multicultural population, it is quite common to have additional dishes for non-English language stations. For each additional satellite, a further four wires must be added to the system and the number of connections to the multiswitch increased correspondingly. Nine wire systems are becoming more common and some 13-wire systems do exist.

About 45 per cent of the country receives Cable TV services offering TV, broadband, mobile phone services over fibre optic cables. An increasing number of people are viewing on IPTV ¨C Internet protocol television -delivered over local area broadband network using web protocols, distributed over Category 5 cable network, and received on a TV adapted with an IP set-top box or a PC or laptop.

For care homes, B&B premises and small hotels, another option could be the installation of a multi distribution box which receives digital channels and coverts them into analogue TV channels. This can provide the main TV channels - BBC 1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Five - on their existing TVs and one extra service such as BBC 24 or the History Channel, without need for any extra set top box, remote control or extra cabling. However, it does not offer interactive services.

Whatever the existing systems in place or the potential options for switching to receive digital signals, the advice from Digital UK is to start now to develop a strategy. Projects to upgrade or replace existing communal TV systems may take several years to complete in large estates and particularly for social landlords. It suggests finding out the following information:

....The types and numbers of buildings and households/tenants in your property estate
....What aerial provision exists and what are planning guidelines for installing aerials and satellite dishes on each property
....The requirements under existing lease or tenancy agreements for the provision and maintenance of systems together with consultation and recovery of costs. The lease may require the landlord to maintain a communal TV system in good working order which may mean conversion to digital, or there may be different conditions for tenants and leaseholders in the same property
....What existing cable installations are installed
....DTT services currently available in the area
....Compare reliability and running costs of upgraded systems
....Review existing contracts for maintenance
....Consider the needs and expectations of the residents.

For social landlords and others with large property estates, the Digital Switchover could represent considerable cost both in upgrading communal TV systems, rewiring and consequential management time and costs of consultation. There is no Government funding for the upgrade work undertaken by social or private sector landlords who will have to meet the costs from existing income or capital streams, and recover costs via the service charges where this is possible.

As the Switchover progresses by region over the next five years, necessary upgrade works could be integrated into refurbishment and renovation schedules. However, the availability of suitably qualified aerial installers could become an issue as the Switchover date approaches in each region. The Government launched a Registered Digital Installer (RDI) scheme in March 2006. These contractors undergo an NVQ qualification and CRB – criminal records bureau checks to be able to display the digital ‘ tick’ symbol. A list of qualified installers is available on, the website of the Registered Digital Installer Licensing Body (RDI-LB), a community interest company formed to act as a guardian to raise the professional status of TV signal reception installers and the aerial reception industry as a whole. Hundreds of people are currently in training, but as the programme progresses many more will be needed before the Switchover is
complete - another reason to start work early. An accredication award for public and private housing property developers and managers who have made adequate plans for the Switchover will be launched in the New Year. Further details are available on the property managers website.

This switchover programme does not affect radio although DAB radio is one of the many services available on digital TVs. DAB is the chosen system for the UK but be aware that Digital Radio Mondial (DRM), the new broadcasting standard recently developed to allow digital broadcasting in the short, medium and long wavebands – the AM bands below 30MHz – is more standard outside the UK. The BBC World Service is broadcast using the DRM system in mainland Europe, while in the UK it is still DAB. A trial using the DRM system using the medium wave frequencies is to be conducted in Devon. If switching to digital radio as well as to digital TV, consider appliances that can accept both DAB and DRM systems.

Radio mics
When the switchover is completed the analogue wavebands will be auctioned providing a ‘digital dividend’ much like the 3G auction. The UHF spectrum for TV broadcasting has 49 channels – 21-69 – each 8MHz wide. There is currently debate about what will happen to ‘Channel 69’ the only channel dedicated to radio microphones that are widely used in theatres, conferences and outdoor events. About 180,000 wireless units use this spectrum at 45,000 different events from church fetes and school drama productions to full scale West End shows and Live 8 concerts. MP for Mid Worcestershire, Peter Luff raised the issue in Parliament of protecting these disparate users who will be unable to afford or organize a bid to retain Channel 69. In addition, it is estimated that up to £50m worth of equipment, often available on hire, would become redundant overnight. The debate continues and OFCOM is consulting on ‘professional’ and ‘community’ use. It is likely to ensure that the spectrum continues to be made available for professional use until at least 2012 to avoid disruption to the Olympics Games in London, and to reserve Channel 69 for community use. Beyond 2012, professional users might expect have to replace analogue equipment, pay more for the hire of wireless radio michrophones and see changes to their waveband allocation.

European switch
The Digitial Switchover is not just confined to the UK. There is a wide roll out of digital terrestrial TV and the switch off of analogue terrestrial TV across Europe including all the new member states who joined earlier this year. The European Commission has set the deadline of 2012 for the switch off for analogue terrestrial TV broadcasting, a date that has been endorsed by the European Council and the European Parliament. To date 19 member states of the EU have some digital terrestrial TV transmissions covering at least parts of their territory, while six others will see services provided by 2010 at the latest.

The switch off of analogue signals has already taken place in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Finland and several areas of Germany. By the end of 2010, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Malta and Sweden will have switched off their analogue TV while between 2010 and 2012, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and the UK will have followed. Lithuania will begins its regional switch off in 2012, Poland is proposing to switch off in 2014, Bulgaria in 2015. Only Ireland, Romania and Portugal have not yet established their plans.

Link: Digital UK

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