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Digital TV in the UK: A Viewers Guide

written by: Profacgillies•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/1/2011

Why do we need digital TV in the UK? How can you receive it? What’s the cheapest way to do it? What gives you the best choice? Can I get HD on Freeview? What’s the difference between Cable and Satellite? Answers to these and more in this user guide to UK Digital TV.

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    Why Do We Need Digital TV?

    The UK is currently (2009) switching from analogue TV to digital TV services (DTV). This means that the old analogue signals are being switched off. If you still only have a set designed to receive the old analogue signals, you won’t be able to receive TV signals once the signal in your area is switched off. The switchover process is happening region by region and will be complete by 2012, when London and North East England will be the last regions to switch over.

    The main reason for the switchover is to use the available frequency spectrum more effectively, to broadcast more channels, some in high definition (HD), and to leave room for other applications like mobile Internet and smart mobile phones.

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    What Do I Need To Receive Digital TV (DTV)?

    To receive DTV you need a means of receiving the signal, an aerial, satellite dish or cable to bring the signal to your house. There it needs to be converted to a video and audio signal, which is achieved by a digital tuner which is either in your new digital compatible TV, or your set top box which is designed for the signal received (terrestrial via your aerial, satellite or cable) and finally a screen to display the picture. You may also want the set top box to offer facilities to record programmes onto a hard disk for later viewing. And if that’s not enough options, you can buy a card to receive DTV on your computer.

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    What Services Are Available Without A Subscription?

    The simplest way to receive DTV is to either buy a new television or a Freeview set top box. Both of these plug into your existing aerial and offer a much wider range of channels than your analogue services (up to 40 stations and a wide range of digital radio stations) for the cost of your existing TV licence. Some people may need an aerial upgrade to receive an adequate signal. Also, people who live in isolated stations served by local repeater stations have discovered that they only receive about half the full Freeview portfolio of channels.

    An alternative solution is Freesat. This is available if you have an existing satellite dish, or if you install one. You then need a Freesat compatible set top box or television to receive signals this way. This is useful if you live in a poor signal area or you wish to receive a limited high definition service without paying a regular subscription.

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    What Subscription Services Are Available And What Do I Get For My Money?

    There is a wider selection of options if you are prepared to pay a monthly subscription. Subscription services can be delivered by your aerial (eg TopUpTV), by satellite (eg Sky), cable (eg Virgin) or your telephone line (eg BT).

    Terrestrial subscription TV uses similar technology to free DTV and provides additional channels. Although all TopUp set top boxes will also receive free DTV, not all Freeview boxes are TopUp compatible.

    The largest market share belongs to satellite TV provider Sky, who offer a wide range of services, in a variety of packages. Live Sport and Movies on demand are available in premium packages with simpler and cheaper packages. A subscription includes a sophisticated set top box with recording facilities and a deluxe version is available for a premium payment providing even more sophistication and access to the widest range available of high definition (HD) services.

    Virgin Media offer a subscription service via cable which is again available in a variety of formats. Their premium service also offers sport and movie channels as well as a set top box with multiple recording possibilities and a more limited high definition service.

    The most limited option is currently offered to broadband customers of phone company BT which offers a limited range of services on top of those offered by Freeview.

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    How And When Will I Be Able to Receive High Definition (HD)?

    Modern televisions can display high definition signals with resolutions of up to 1080 lines against 576 lines on a standard definition display, and without the interlacing used in conventional signals. Routinely, Digital TV provides the same standard definition signal as analogue. However, there are a growing number of high definition services which can be accessed with some options. Sky offers the best range of high definition services, but with the highest costs. Cable operators offer a more limited service but at a lower price.

    At the moment, the only high definition service available without subscription is Freesat HD which provides BBC and ITV HD channels free of charge once you have purchased the correct set top box or TV, and connected the satellite dish.

    From the end of 2009, a new service will be rolled out starting in the North West of England, which offers HD signals over Freeview. It may not be available in other regions until the analogue services are switched off. It is likely to be one HD service each from BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five. However, this will require the purchase of yet another set top box.

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    For another interesting take on the global switch from analogue to digital, read Mike Garcen's article - Why We Really Have to Switch to Digital TV?