Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

TV industry's long and winding road to switchover

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Wednesday October 19, 2005

The long and winding road to digital switchover is fraught with pitfalls

Buyer beware: a consumer's guide to switchover

When the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, announced the timetable for digital switchover last month, the broadcast industry breathed a huge sigh of relief. Well, sort of.

The good news is that the government was confirming what everybody really already knew - the switchover was happening and the timetable would mean no more analogue television signals anywhere in the UK beyond 2012. The bad news is that so many other questions about the switchover have yet to the answered. Plus, of course, there is an enormous amount of coordinated work needed to pull this thing off.

Digital TV takes up less room on the airways than analogue, so switching off the old signals will free up broadcast frequencies for other uses, ranging from offering more digital channels to accommodating new technologies like high-definition television and TV delivered to mobile phones. But getting from here to there is going to cause headaches for virtually everyone involved in the broadcast industry, from channel owners to transmitter engineers, from consumer electronics manufacturers to international frequency regulators. And then there is the punter, the actual UK television viewer, all 55 million of them.

Sixty-three per cent of UK homes already have at least one TV that receives digital TV. Convincing the rest to change from analogue is the job of newly named Digital UK (formerly SwitchCo), a group headed by the energetic and optimistic Ford Ennals, a man who has never worked in TV, but who at his last job coordinated the integration programme at Lloyds TSB that brought together 4,500 bank branches and 17,000 customers under one brand.

But even as Ennals and his information and education campaign are gearing up, the engineers at Crown Castle and Arqiva (formerly NTL Broadcast) are busy working out plans to convert the UK's analogue transmission network to carry the new digital signals.

This is a truly huge engineering project because there are 1,154 TV towers across the UK to convert with a price tag estimated to be about 500m, a figure that could rise if delays are encountered by engineers trying to fix new kit on towers hundreds of feet tall in the variable UK climate. The whole project must also be done with maximum care - the map of TV transmission is so complex that this is a job only done one transmitter at a time and in a particular order or else the whole jigsaw comes apart.

"There are main sites and then daughter sites so, for example, because we're converting region by region it could be 50 sites in one night that need to be switched over," says Steve Holebrook, managing director for terrestrial media solutions at Arqiva. Each region will take months and some may not be fully converted for several years.

The government's region-by-region switchover timetable was created with input from the industry, so the order of the regions to be switched over came as no big surprise. Border is first in 2008, followed by the West Country, HTV Wales and Granada in 2009. HTV West, Grampian and Scottish TV are to switch in 2011 while Meridan, Carlton/LWT (London), Tyne Tees and Ulster will switch in 2012.

The work in the Border region has already begun with the first towers set to be upgraded to digital by the middle of next year. Overall, Crown Castle will upgrade 750 towers and Arqiva will take care of the rest. They will have to coordinate their work so that each region makes the transition smoothly while at the same time competing against each other for the digital transmission contracts from the broadcasters.

"We are both working on solutions so we can keep to the government's timetable, but there are practical issues," says Holebrook. "We have to replace the antennae on structures that are 1,000 feet tall and keep analogue TV going at the same time, so there are a lot of issues to overcome."

One of the big potential stumbling blocks for the transmission companies is lack of clarity from Ofcom on how many digital frequencies each tower will have to support. The problem is that before the proper antennae and other kit can be designed, the engineers need to know what the future potential uses are, otherwise, they won't build in the proper flexibility. There is also a cost issue.

"As the party that has to invest in the antennae we are hardly going to invest unless we have clear direction that someone is going to use it and pay for that use down the road," says Holebrook.

The difficulty for the government, and indeed for the regulator, Ofcom, which is in charge of the UK's spectrum licensing, is that all new spectrum allocations must be coordinated with other countries to avoid interference and the next international conference to deal with these kinds of issues doesn't take place until June of next year at the Regional Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva. At the conference, Ofcom is planning to ask for enough frequencies to add two new multiplexes (a suite of eight to 10 channels in a certain frequency band, also known by acronym MUX) to add to the UK's existing six MUXs. The problem is that there is no assurance that the UK will get its preferred allocation. "The RRC could throw a real spanner in the works," said one industry insider.

"Ofcom says that they'll wait until after the RRC to tell us if there will be one or two new MUXs," says Holebrook. "But that will be too late because we'll have fitted the first antennae by then."

For its part, Ofcom says it does plan to have some kind of communication out by early next year that will describe what the new digital frequencies could be used for, but the regulator insists its hands are tied in terms of making concrete decisions until after the RCC.


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