So You are thinking about Digital Satellite Television?
A brief guide to Sky Digital outside of the United Kingdom
©Bavaria Satellite Systems, Munich, 1998-2001
What Is Digital Satellite Television?
Digital Television is the new "revolution" in television technology. Available in the UK and Northern Ireland from both terrestrial (i.e. normal antennae) and satellite (i.e. with a dish) transmissions, digital television uses a complex transmission standard sending picture and sound information in digital, as opposed to analogue form, similar to data transmission between computers. Using advanced compression techniques and the fact that with digital technology, data transmission is very precise, more information (i.e. more channels) and better quality television pictures and sound can be received in the home.
Is Digital Satellite Television better than the previous analogue system?
Without question. Not only should picture and sound quality be near-perfect with many more channels being available, but most programme providers are now sending wide-screen higher definition pictures using this system. Most people report richer colour definition and better contrast when comparing the new digitally transmitted picture to the previous analogue with sound also being near-CD quality. It is important to remember though, that the final result is as good as the television and system used to view the transmissions. As most televisions are still based on analogue technology, especially with older units, you may still not get as good a picture as that to which you may be entitled.
An additional feature of digital TV is the electronic programme guide (EPG) provided with the channels. This is like a very advanced text based system which allows you to quickly see what programmes any channel is carrying up to 4 days prior to transmission with additional content information on request.
Finally, many new features will be ultimately be available to digital TV viewers, including on-line shopping, internet access, and video-nearly-on-demand (Same movie starting every 15 minutes, say so you can turn on the TV at any time and only have a short wait to the start of a chosen movie).
What Digital Television is available in the UK?
There are currently 2 systems broadcasting in the UK:
Because of the geographical limitations on ONDigital, this document will only refer to the Sky Digital Satellite System.
What equipment is available to receive Sky Digital?
Sky Television have designed reception equipment (known as a "Digibox") for their satellite transmissions which includes a scrambling system, and have licensed their manufacture to 3 manufacturers in the UK - Pace, Grundig and Amstrad. (An additional supplier, Panasonic will probably simply re-badge one of the other 3) The heart of the receiver is a computer system requiring software, provided exclusively by Sky and actually downloaded or updated directly into the receiver from the satellite. This means that apart from aesthetic issues, there is very little to choose between the different receiver boxes on the market. In a few years experience will tell who is the better manufacturer for product reliability. In the future additional equipment, and maybe even digital satellite televisions may come onto the market, but at the end of the day many of the facilities provided will be limited to software capabilities which will be identical in all systems.
How much does it cost?
Receiving equipment is available in the UK from around £200 ($320), including dish. However, this price is artificial as it is highly subsidised by a company called British interactive Broadcasting (BiB) in collaboration with Sky to encourage people to buy into the new technology. Current estimates put the subsidy at around £250, putting the actual street value of the system at £450 ($720). The subsidy is only paid if 3 conditions are met:
The prices shown do not include any installation costs, nor costs for subscription to the channels you may wish to watch.
Can I receive anything else apart from Sky Television?
Because the terrestrial ONDigital system wanted to expand its appeal and include Sky programming such as movies and sport, Sky have been required by the regulatory authorities to reciprocate and include terrestrial broadcast programmes with their own. UK-sourced BBC 1, BBC 2, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are included in the satellite transmissions, as are some new UK channels, BBC Choice (a mix of BBC repeats from the week before), BBC 24 (news) and BBC Parliament (live feeds from the UK Parliament!). Additional free channels supplement these, including QVC; Travel Shop, The Travel Channel (shopping channels!), CNN, Sky News, TNT, The Cartoon Network and S4C. Because these are actually non-subscription channels (known as "free-to-air") Sky are required to make them available to those that wish to view them, without charge. ITV have not joined the channel line up, because of confusion over the ability of Sky to limit regional ITV stations to their own regions. ITV regions depend heavily on geographically targeted advertising revenue, and may not want advertising intended and financed from ITV Scotland to be available to viewers in London for example. Rumours in the industry suggest that ITV will eventually join the free-to-air options later in 1999.
Can I watch any of these digital Channels outside of the UK?
Officially - no. There are good reasons for this. Sky only licences the material (movies, sports, etc.) they buy for re-transmission into the UK and Northern Ireland. If they were to permit viewing outside of this territory, not only would they be in conflict with the redistribution rights that they have bought, but also programme providers in other countries may get upset that their territory is being infringed. The same is also true for the free-to-air channels - the BBC for example makes a healthy living out of selling home-made material to other countries, and would not want to lose this source of revenue by allowing it to be freely available in other countries. It has been suggested that additional restrictions imposed by the BBC have caused Sky to tighten up their own distribution system to further enforce UK-only viewing.
What is to stop me bringing equipment outside of the UK to watch these channels?
Technically - very little, legally - quite a lot.
Clearly as you would not want the system installed by a "qualified" installer (only in the UK) and permanently attached to a UK phone line, you would not qualify for the subsidy. This means you would have to pay around £450 for a complete system, then ship it abroad and install it (or have it installed). You would be able to receive one channel - Sky News (and a couple of others advertising the wonders of Sky Digital 24 hours a day).
If you want to watch more channels you have 2 choices:
The last two points imply that you need to be in possession of an installed Digibox before making the call.
Once you have the card (delivered by recorded delivery 3-5 working days later) you need to enable the card by inserting it into the Digibox and calling the subscriber centre once more (from the same number/address that called for the card - if they see a different incoming number they will ask additional questions). You will be asked for further information before a signal is sent to switch on the free-to-air channels in your box. This can take up to 6 hours after making the call - not all channels are switched on at once. Clearly, the box must be correctly installed with the dish aligned on the satellite for this process to be successful.
There is one important aspect to note when subscribing to Sky channels. Your signature on the subscription form contractually obliges you keep the viewing card in the UK, at the address you have given, in the Digibox you have described to them (in fact, the card won't work in any other box - as once enabled, it is married to that unit alone). There is no signature required to obtain a free-to-air card - the implication being that you are not obliged to retain it in the UK - however, should you be "discovered" (or even suspected of) using the card outside the UK, the card can be disabled over the satellite in seconds. Disabling a card, will disable its host Digibox meaning that Sky would not enable any further cards in that equipment (they know the serial number!), unless it could be proved to be resident in the UK (i.e. seen by Sky approved installer).
Once a card is enabled Sky recommend that it should always be left in the Digibox, the box should always be connected to power (even in the stand-by ("off") state the Digibox continues to receive and understand satellite signals) and your dish should always point at the Astra 2 satellite. As it is certainly the case that the Digibox regularly receives over-the-air software updates, then this is not unreasonable - not receiving an update for any reason may temporarily disable your card. Sky will tell you that even a few minutes with the card out of the box or the receiver off-satellite can disable the card, but this is unlikely to be the case. However, longer periods (in excess of 24 hours, say) should be avoided.
Frequently asked questions regarding Sky Digital
Although not impossible, installation is not easy - installing digital satellite is much more complicated than analogue. You certainly can't swing the dish around and look for a picture - for a start the system needs around 20-30 seconds following accurate alignment to recognise the signal and synchronise to a picture at all. A trial-and-error approach would require tremendous patience. Accurate alignment not only of the dish, but also of the LNB (receptor on the end of the dish arm) in its holder is critical to getting any picture. Unlike analogue satellite systems, there is no such thing as a bad (e.g. "sparkly") picture - you either get a picture, or you do not! A competent installer would use a wide-band spectrum analyser and signal strength meter with 22KHz upper-band switching to ensure optimal installation. Even the cheap signal strength meters on the market are not adequate - they block the 22KHz signal required to obtain the upper band digital signals.
Yes - the Digibox has a SCART output for a Videorecorder, but as with analogue satellite you can only record or watch one programme at a time. Note that here is currently no facility in the Digibox for a VCR timer (automatic switch on to a certain channel at a certain time)
You can only do this using a TV antenna connection - you would then be restricted to UK standard TVs (Just like you cannot use a UK TV on a German aerial or cable system the Digibox does not support a German antenna connection and cannot be easily adapted). You would not receive stereo sound even if your TV supports it, and all TVs would have to watch the same satellite channel at the same time. You could of course use the wireless relay systems currently on the market to transmit the pictures to additional televisions around your home.
At the moment - no. The Digibox does not support the required switching to achieve this. Future models may permit this (in fact, it maybe that only a software upgrade is required, but this is presently not certain).
Yes - as with most analogue systems there are (analogue) stereo audio outputs on the Digibox to connect to your hi-fi.
Technically, yes, but there are currently none of the "usual" radio channels available on Astra 2. This may change. There are more than 30 sound (music!)-only channels "in CD quality" but most of these are simply back-to-back music tracks in the style of your choice. BBC Radios 1/2/3/4/5/etc seem to have no plans to come onto this satellite.
Theoretically, yes, but the choice is limited. The Digibox can only receive a subset of all the digital signals available from other satellites. Of course you would need to be able to move your dish accurately onto other satellite positions.
No - the Digibox is designed to de-scramble signals using the "Videoguard" encryption system which is exclusive to Sky and not used by any other programme provider. Unlike other digital receivers, there is no "Common Interface" to permit additional scrambling systems to be supported.
No - no other receiver supports the Videoguard encryption system, which is proprietary to Sky. Furthermore, Sky licences the manufacturers of Digiboxes who build to Sky's own design.
Yes - if this information is being transmitted (it is on most channels). Page updates are also much quicker. This is a good source of programme schedule detail. Note that the remote control for the Pace Digibox can (uniquely) also control the functions of most TVs so you only need to have the one remote in your hand.
Maybe - but not very much. The non-subsidised prices are comparable to other systems on the market, the prices of which have not changed much over 2 years. The systems are really quite technologically advanced and very complicated - technology has a price. Best case is that there maybe additional features included at the same price (a VCR timer for example)
They might - but experience shows they do not. If they do then the following answers may help your case:
(The two last points are probably the better argument!)
Yes - you simply need to make a phone call to Sky to send the signal over the air to the card to enable it for the movies of your choice. Needless to say, this call should come from the house where the Digibox is registered. The same is also true for card upgrades to receive additional channels. This may be a risk you can do without.
The card itself is not upgraded - you basically need to begin the enrolment sequence for Sky as described above, and you will receive a second card. Note that your first card could not be given/loaned/sold to anyone else, as it will only work in the Digibox that it was registered for.
Difficult to say, but Sky won't persuade 6 million existing subscribers to convert to Digital satellite with all it entails overnight. Sky hasn't made a formal statement on this, but pessimistic estimates say at least 5 years, but it will more probably be in excess of 10. It will most probably be that newer channels will begin on digital, leaving the existing analogue offerings fairly stagnant.
I cannot be held responsible for any actions you take as result of reading this guide. It is not intended to encourage or assist you to break any laws. If you enter into any contracts for digital satellite television, be sure you understand the terms and conditions you are subscribing to and their geographical limitations!
Questions? - we'll be happy to help
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