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Friday, May 28, 1999 Published at 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK


Digital TV: Exactly what do you get?

Everyone likes to know they are wanted, and that's exactly how you will feel if you pop along to a high street electrical store at the moment.

A battle is under way in the digital television market and both sides are clamouring over themselves for the public's attention.

Like rowing parents heading for a divorce suit, Sky and ONdigital are scoring points against one another in a bid for custody of the customer.

And like little lost children, we, the consumer, look to both for guidance but are left bewildered by the barrage of claims and counter claims.

[ image: Television has come a long way since the 1950s]
Television has come a long way since the 1950s
Digital television was launched in the UK last October by Sky, as an alternative to the analogue "platform" that has existed since the days of John Logie Baird.

Because digital signals require a smaller bandwidth than analogue ones, many more can be broadcast simultaneously. The result - hundreds more possible television channels.

In November, ONdigital launched its terrestrial service as an alternative to Sky's system, which requires a satellite receiving dish.

Digital needs decoding

While the ONdigital technology uses a television's existing aerial, both platforms require a set-top box to decode the digital signal. Since digital TV will eventually replace analogue, the decoding technology will soon be built into new televisions.

[ image:  ]

In a bid to win customers, both sides have slashed the price of their set-top boxes to nothing. But there are additional costs in each case.

So which is right for you?

A full comparison of the services would have a reader scrolling down the page for some time, but there are a number of salient points to be made.

Cable competition

Unfortunately, the issue is complicated by the fact that this is not a two-horse race. Cable operators Telewest, NTL and Cable and Wireless will be launching their own digital services towards the end of this year.

But Ian Hood, of Telewest, says the existing cable services are more than a match for digital, offering up to 50 channels and pay-per-view films.

[ image:  ]

One voice of sanity has been that of the independent consumer magazine, Which?

It disputes claims that digital television offers significantly superior reception quality than analogue and advises consumers to wait and see.

"If you do want to watch the new digital channels, hire a terrestrial or satellite system from a rental shop - this should only cost £8 per month," Which? advised in a recent edition.

Key comparisons

  • In terms of initial outlay, ONdigital beats Sky, which charges £40 for installing a satellite dish. But only 70% of households in the UK can currently receive terrestrial digital reception and some existing TV aerials may still need modification, which will cost £40.

  • ONdigital effectively rents its "free" set-top boxes. Viewers must pay a minimum monthly subscription of 6.99.

  • That covers digital versions of the five established channels: BBCs One and Two, ITV and Channels 4 and 5 - as well as BBC Choice, Parliament (audio only), Knowledge, News 24, ITV2, Shop, First ONdigital and one "primary" channel.

  • Sky does not demand a minimum subscription, broadcasting for free BBCs One and Two, Channels 4 and 5, Choice, Knowledge, Parliament, News 24, but not ITV, for which viewers have to switch back to analogue mode.

  • A top of the range Sky package, costing £32 per month, will deliver 150 channels, including audio channels and several devoted to "near video on demand" where a film runs on several channels, at closely staggered intervals.

  • A top of the range ONdigital package, costing 29.99 per month, offers 31 channels, including some devoted to digital teletext.

  • Despite the bitter rivalry, ONdigital subscribers can watch Sky's sport and movie channels.

  • Both are gearing up to offer Internet-style facilities for home shopping and banking.

  • They are also offering discounts on telephone calls. Sky promises a 40% discount on all calls from a BT landline and free subscription to an Internet service provider. ONdigtal has pledged up to 40% off BT landline calls from July.

  • Yet both packages feature potential snags. For Sky, there is the on-going "stigma" of the satellite dish. Many consumers think they look ugly and downmarket.

  • For ONdigital viewers, the snag is if they stop paying the subscription charge they must give back their set-top box.

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