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? back.gif (4868 bytes)

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? back.gif (4868 bytes)

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? back.gif (4868 bytes)

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? back.gif (4868 bytes)

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?back.gif (4868 bytes)

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?back.gif (4868 bytes)

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? back.gif (4868 bytes)

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? back.gif (4868 bytes)

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 Digitalback.gif (4868 bytes)

(The two last points are probably the better argument!)


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!

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