Take your pick

By James Pittman

I'm not sure if you've noticed or not, but we seem to have had a revolution in broadcasting.

The digital revolution, some people like to call it. The entire method to which we receive broadcast pictures and sounds has changed. Perhaps for the better, perhaps not, but the truth is it's here and we're stuck with it.

Sky Digital

But this revolution has been quite a special one. Unlike ever before, there are now three different ways to watch TV in this wonderful new digital environment. Once upon a time we just stuck an aerial on the roof and that was that, but now we have a choice. Cable, Satellite or Terrestrial.

All show similar channels, you can get EastEnders and Corrie on all three, but each has their own different technologies, benefits and downfalls. Perhaps more famously - each have their own politics.

But which system is best? Which is truly the superior platform? Most people have their own opinions based on experience or political circumstance, but what does it mean from a truly technological standpoint?

I'm willing to be brave and go out on a limb and say that think it is digital satellite, and I'm going to make my case for it.

At first glance the whole benchmarking of digital television platforms is clouded with politics. Digital Terrestrial has been associated with the famous mess that Carlton and Granada made with their failed ONdigital (later ITV Digital) venture.

Digital Satellite is strongly associated with Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB that dominates and distributes the platform via the Astra system which it rents space from. Many people do not like Rupert Murdoch and his ruthless freemarketism and have a firm dislike of him.

Others are not fans of subscription television in any form and naturally prefer the Freeview system as offered by the BBC and Crown Castle on Digital Terrestrial as it is now entirely 'free to air' meaning you do not have to pay a subscription to view its goodness. This again makes it different from digital satellite.

Different regulations make everything look different. Cable is not universally available and many associate cable companies with being irresponsible and bad at what they do - a legacy that may not be true now, but dates back from an older era of analogue cable television with small, so dubbed 'cowboy' companies.

And then there are the technologies. Lots of people I know say "Sky is better because its interactive services are better." That has nothing to do with satellite. It has everything to do with Sky distributing boxes with faster processors than ONdigital did. There are other examples along these lines.

But when you cast this aside, what then stands out to be the real best way of receiving television? There are arguments for all three but I truly believe satellite can answer all the questions you put to it.

Before I make my case for satellite, I'd like to point out that I do not necessarily believe in the way it is currently run with a great deal of the power owned by a private enterprise that is BSkyB.

There have been proposals floating around (that sadly will be unlikely to see the light of day) that suggest Digital Satellite should be put into the public sector - controlled by a regulator with true standards, and that this be in charge of its running.

Whatever your political beliefs I'd like you for a minute forget them, or imagine a satellite system that is run however you think is best and controlled by whoever you think is most fit. I am not talking about Sky here, but Digital Satellite and any hypothetical owner you can come up with.

Bandwidth

So why do I think Satellite is better? Well let us first look at its main rival since the birth of digital - digital terrestrial (or DTT as it is known in technical circles.)

One of the biggest benefits Digital Satellite (DSAT) has over DTT is that it has more bandwidth. This means it can broadcast more digital signals and hence more video channels, audio channels and text or interactive services than DTT can.

Is this a good thing? Well it's certainly not a bad thing. There's an argument that more isn't always more and that 200 channels does not mean 50x the quality of 4 terrestrial channels.

To an extent I agree with this (though many new channels, like BBC4, BBC7, E4 and UK Gold I quite enjoy and I await the new BBC3 with great expectations.) But more bandwidth doesn't have to mean more channels. A DSAT with a responsible regulator that ensured what channels did exist were of a high quality would be able to artificially offer the same restrictions as DTT did implicitly.

More bandwidth does not have to mean more channels. It can mean faster and more enhanced digital text services, the inclusion in depth of Radio; every radio station in the country if you so wished.

Foreign television channels for ex-patriots and economic migrants (many Asian channels are included on the current Sky platform) as well as higher-grade picture quality can all be gained from more airwave space.

If this country is ever to have HDTV (high definition digital television with super high quality pictures), which I sincerely hope it one day, does, then it will undoubtedly be on satellite. DTT simply doesn't have the space.

When ONdigital tried to maximise its profit by cramming in a great many channels and services, we had to contend with horrendous picture quality. Digital satellite - presuming a regulator enforces it - can have as many or as few channels as it wants without sacrificing picture quality.

Politics will always come into the equation, it always does, but when it comes to 'who gets this much-in-demand channel space' the question is easier when there's lots of it going around.

There are also certain areas of television broadcasting (not most, but some) where more sometimes is more. My viewing on music television is far enhanced now that there are 20 odd music channels instead of 2.

Music is such a broad subject that you can justify these channels, and to a lesser extent this is true with repeats services and sports channels. More bandwidth can only be a good thing and a good regulator can easily deal with any downsides. It's a sad state of affairs for regulation if we need lack of bandwidth to enforce quality!

Reception

Which out of DSAT or DTT is the easiest to receive is a subject of much heated debate. Anywhere in the UK that has a direct line of sight to the bit of Sky where the Astra constellation floats can receive digital satellite.

For DTT you have to be able to pick up a strong enough signal which rules out quite a large area of the country. Hills, large buildings, geographical features, all affect DTT reception.

A complex network of transmitters dotted around the counties, along with even more boasters and sub-transmitters need to be constructed and configured to provide a comprehensive coverage, which will never be 100% complete.

Building transmitters is no easy task, fraught with political inertia as well as hidden difficulties such as complaints from neighbouring countries claiming we interfere and pollute their airwaves. None of this occurs with DSAT.

However, DSAT isn't immune from problems by any stretch of the imagination. Not every house can receive DSAT because their line of sight is blocked, their landlord objects to having a dish on her building, or you live in a high-rise flat facing the wrong side of the world.

Many houses already have a UHF TV aerial which a DTT set or receiver can be plugged into, not as many have a dish on the wall which requires installation and wiring.

So which is the lesser of the evils? Well to me I think we need to look at the long-term picture and the fact that DSAT's problems stem more from politics and tradition rather than technical blocks.

Much of the anti-dish sentiment is snobbery. A dish for many is something you see on a council estate - not down our street! This perception needs to be changed. Many landlords need to learn that a dish these days is neither much bigger nor any more unsightly than a standard TV aerial.

Terrestrial aerials have to point in the correct direction too, and suffer the same restrictions on listed buildings as small dishes. Much of these problems can be overcome with time. High Rise flats will eventually install communal satellite systems. Simple legislation could accelerate these things.

Landlords could be required to allow a small, not unsightly dish to be mounted on their premises and subsidies could be given to property managers of flats and other communal buildings to help pay for communal reception systems.

This would come at a price, but improving DTT coverage is no cheap activity either. It's a hard case to call but I am not unconvinced that making it possible for everybody to receive satellite television would be cheaper than making it possible for everybody to receive digital terrestrial.

Not everybody has a satellite dish in his or her house today, but when television came out, most people didn't have aerials. Give it a few years and moving house or getting a receiver could just be a case of 'plugging in' rather than sticking on the wall.

Again it's looking more into the future than the short term and digital television is going to be about for a long time so it is about time we should.

Portability

DTT proponents claim portability is a major factor, but is it all that important? One day most homes with have a dish stuck to them and it is not unconceivable to think that before long houses will have many DSAT 'sockets' just as most homes have many telephone sockets.

The only real use of portability is therefore those silly little pocket 'portable' televisions, and, come on, that's no great loss is it? Campers and caravanners could always erect a portable dish as could outside broadcast teams if need be - I've seen this done on the side of camper-vans in America!

Then there's the consideration that there are many genuine uses of portable broadcasting with much bigger claims than television. Many people sneer and shout cynical thoughts when they hear of how the government are keen to sell off the terrestrial analogue bandwidth to mobile phone companies to make money, but is this a bad thing?

Mobile phones are fantastic things and have to be portable and use terrestrial bandwidth - people can't all walk around with massive satellite phones on the bus.

Likewise, digital audio broadcasting and other digital radio systems all need bandwidth if they are to expand and improve their broadcast quality. Radio has a genuine need for being portable that television does not.

Other systems, such as wireless internet, could also make a good use of this reserved bandwidth. As such can we fairly justify locking up all this precious airwave space that has great potential for portable systems for a system where portability isn't that big a demand?

To me it is a bad priority to have, especially when there are acres of space on digital satellite that television can very easily use instead.

Regionality

But what about regional TV? With one satellite in the air, how can we get regional variations? Terrestrial television is implicitly regional but digital satellite can be explicitly regional and do a better job in the process.

We all know that space is not an issue on digital satellite. It is cheap and abundant. With about 100 channels for pay per view movies alone, and scores of teleshopping and fast-turnaround-repeats services we can see this quite clearly.

Twenty-five or so regions for the main broadcasters and, say, six or so for some smaller ones isn't a big demand.

And regional broadcasting on digital TV can be better because we can set the boundaries ourselves and don't have to rely on circumstance and geographical feature to decide which towns and cities come under which transmitter.

The Northwest, for example, has two large and very different cities - Liverpool and Manchester - but they have to receive their television from the same transmitter at Winter Hill.

As such they cannot have their own services. There are areas around London that would be more appropriate getting their own service but cannot for whatever reason. On satellite, every region is multi-cast on the same transmitter.

Those who aren't happy with their designated region can tune to an adjacent one, or even one many miles away for whatever reason. With Regional Satellite Television, the broadcasters can draw the map, not the transmitter designers and it works out better for everybody concerned.

Other means

In short, there is nothing that satellite can't do and a lot it can. Its downfalls when compared to other DTT can be dealt with quite easily with the right laws, a little bit of investment and a decent regulator.

If I was looking for long-term solution to what is a long-term problem, satellite is what I would choose if I was a government wanting to choose a main platform for broadcasting.

Of course, DTT isn't the only alternative, we have Digital Cable (DCAB) and various internet solutions but as these rely on broadband or digital cable coming to the door, is it really the best solution?

Just like DTT, it isn't going to be something everybody in the country is going to get over night by any means. Can we justly say that everybody will have the internet in the future?

Telecommunications are naturally two-way mediums and broadcasting only needs to be one-way so whilst DCAB and the internet offer much of the functionality of DSAT, the expense of making everybody broadband or cable ready is probably a lot more expensive than dealing with the few houses that cannot get DSAT with no great benefit.

So in short I have my favourite. We all have our favourites, but I like to think I have some good reasons for mine. I used to be a firm proponent for DTT before I got DSAT, but after a few years of using both I think I can finally say I have made a fair decision.

I am not saying we should turn off all other TV systems tomorrow, but the digital revolution is going to be around for many, many years, and decisions we make now will effect us for a very long time. As such, it is crucial we make the right one.

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Article ©2003 James Pittman

Compilation ©2003 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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