Are you ready for the digital switch?

A year ago this month, the process of switching from analogue to digital television began in earnest when the town of Whitehaven in Cumbria became the first to make the switch. However, it appears that many of us are still oblivious to what the transition means and when it is taking place.

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According to Digital UK, one third of the UK’s 60 million television sets are still analogue, while the Public Accounts Committee reports that almost half of the TVs sold in the first half of 2007 were analogue sets – meaning that they would need to be upgraded if viewers want to continue enjoying their favourite programmes.

It appears that the digital tick label – that is the symbol used to identify sets that will still function after the switchover – is a mystery to a large number of consumers despite the BBC using £800 million of licence-fee money to fund a public information campaign.

So what is the digital switchover?
Analogue television signals are sent as waves while digital television signals are transmitted as a series of zeros and ones. As a result digital signals contain around six or seven times as much information as analogue signals allowing viewers to receive more channels and, at least in theory, enjoy better quality picture and sound. Digital TV also includes new features such as on-screen TV listings, subscription channels and interactivity.

The switchover is when the analogue signal is switched off and replaced with a digital signal. Those with a TV set that has not been converted to digital will no longer receive TV programmes.

The transition began with Whitehaven last year and will continue across the TV regions until 2012. Those in the Border region will have analogue switched off during this year and 2009. The West Country and Granada regions will also lose analogue in 2009, while Wales will make the change from 2009-2010. STV North will be transferred in 2010, while the West and STV Central areas will be switched in 2010-2011. The Central, Yorkshire, Anglia and Meridian regions will follow in 2011 before London, Tyne Tees and Ulster complete the switch in 2012.

How can you prepare for the change?
Broadly, there are four ways to get digital television:

  • Through an aerial – using a digital set-top box such as Freeview or via a digital tuner that is built into your television.
  • Via satellite – using a Sky TV subscription or via its free service freesat.
  • Through cable – via a service such as Virgin Media.
  • Through broadband internet – via the likes of BT Vision and Tiscali TV.

It is estimated that between 5% and 10% of homes will also need to upgrade their rooftop aerial in order to receive digital television. If you’re not sure whether this applies to you, you can pick up an aerial checker which is available in most electrical stores. Replacing an aerial will typically cost between £80 and £150.

Upgrading your television needn’t be an expensive process, but it’s worth remembering that it’s not just one TV set in your house that will require an upgrade – any secondary sets, of which there are around 35 million in the UK, such as those in kitchens and bedrooms, will need to be ‘digital-ready’ too. Set-top aerials for smaller televisions may need to be replaced and typically cost between £10 and £40.

In addition, it may be necessary to upgrade your video recorder. An analogue video recorder will allow you to watch the videos you already own after the switchover occurs, but it will only allow you to record the channel you are watching at the time. If you want to watch one show and record another you’ll need to upgrade to a hard-disk recorder or a DVD recorder with two digital tuners.

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So which switchover method is right for you?
If your television doesn’t have an integrated digital receiver, the cheapest option is to buy a Freeview set-top box. All you have to pay is a one-off £23 payment for the box itself and there is no contract or set-up costs. You’ll receive up to 48 digital TV channels which includes 18 of the most-watched 20 channels such as ITV2, BBC3 and E4. Switchover should increase Freeview coverage considerably – making it available in around 98.5% of households. To see if you are already in a Freeview area, enter your postcode at the Freeview website.

Another option is to pick up your digital signal via satellite through one of two available Freesat services - one provided by Sky and a second provided by the BBC/ITV. The Freesat from Sky service is available for a one-off fee of £150. Alternatively Sky will provide 240 digital channels and four Sky entertainment mixes on a trial four month basis for a one off payment of £75. It costs £20 a month to retain the four entertainment mixes after the initial four month period ends. Freesat from the BBC/ITV provides 130 digital channels and is completely subscription free, but has initial set up costs: a Freeview box, dish and an installation fee of around £80.

Both offer a suitable solution to the digital switch over and should judged on the level of TV channels you require and the initial set up costs involved. However, you could potentially save even more money if you take the opportunity to assess all of your home services – including your TV, phone, broadband and mobile deals.

Though the switchover refers to TV services only, many providers offer bundled deals that combine TV with other home services and by reassessing your current deals you could potentially save £100s.

Sky combines TV, broadband and phone for as little as £17 a month. Its 3 for £17 deal includes a Sky Variety or Entertainment television package, free UK and evening weekend calls, along with broadband with two megabit (Mb) speeds and a two gigabyte (GB) download cap. You will have to pay for a Sky+ box however, which costs £99 if you order online.

The monthly fee will depend on which TV package you opt for – if you want Sky Sports for example, you’ll pay £36 a month, although this includes the 2Mb broadband and home phone offer. If you want faster broadband access or a bigger monthly download allowance, this is available although it will cost more. For an extra £5 a month you can get 8Mb broadband and a 40GB download allowance. Sky also offers a faster service for heavy users. Its 16MB deal, which allows unlimited downloads, costs an additional £10 per month.

Sky isn’t the only option available however. Tiscali offers its TV, Broadband and Weekend Call package for £15.99 for the first three months, £19.99 a month thereafter with a one-off £30 set-up fee. Its deal includes one TV variety pack with more than 70 channels, over 1,500 movies on demand, up to 8Mb unlimited* broadband, a free wireless router and free weekend UK and international calls. If you wish to upgrade the call element of your package to incorporate inclusive UK anytime and international calls, the TV, Broadband and Anytime Call deal costs £19.99 a month for the first three months, £24.99 a month thereafter, also with a £30 set-up fee.

By selecting BT Vision alongside a BT broadband package you can get around 60 TV channels and 20 radio stations plus interactive services and on-demand content for just £60 with no TV subscription required. You must however have a BT broadband connection – its starter package is BT Option One at £7.95 a month for the first three months, £15.99 a month thereafter with 8Mb speeds and a 10GB download cap.

Finally, Virgin Media offers you the chance to pick up digital TV through a cable service. Its cheapest deal includes more than 40 channels and is free if taken alongside a Virgin phone deal such as Talk Evening and Weekends with unlimited evening and weekend calls for £3.45 a month, plus a Virgin phone line for £11 a month. Virgin is also the only provider to combine broadband, phone, TV and mobile services into one package – you can get 2Mb broadband, 90 digital TV channels, 300mins and texts on your mobile and unlimited UK weekend calls from £29 a month.

Have your say: Do you think the digital switchover is worth it? Visit our forum and give us your views.

* Fair use policy applies. 

Disclaimer: Please note that any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing.

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