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Monday, 21 February, 2000, 16:40 GMT
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.

Digital TV
  • Exactly what do you get?
  • Digital Q&A
  • Freeing up the bandwidth
  • The technology: pros/cons
  • A battle is under way in the digital television market and both sides are clamouring 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.

    Back in the spring, both operators 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 are in the process of launching their own digital services.

    C&W has already launched in Manchester and is rolling out its service over the coming months.

    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 such as Sky One or Eurosport.

    • Sky also demands a minimum subscription of 7 for the "free to air" channels BBC One and Two, Channels 4 and 5, Choice, Knowledge, Parliament, News 24, Sky One and Sky News. For ITV, viewers have to switch back to analogue mode.

    • Alternatively, Sky customers can pay 100 up front for installation and receive just "free to air" channels at no charge.

    • 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.

    • Recent additional features include more "near video on demand" movie channels and Sky Sports Extra, which allows viewers to select instant replay and football league statistics.

    • A top of the range ONdigital package, costing 35.98 per month, offers 34 channels, including some devoted to digital teletext.

    • Despite the bitter rivalry, ONdigital subscribers can watch some ofSky's sport and movie channels, including premium channels.

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

    • Yet both packages feature potential snags. For Sky, there is the on-going "stigma" of the satellite dish. And, because the set-top box is subsidised by British Interactive Broadcasting, viewers who do not wish to link theirs to the phone line, must pay 169 for the box.

    • For ONdigital viewers, the snag is pockets of poor reception and fewer channels.

    • Both deals detailed are the heavily promoted 'free deals'. However, in either case customers can pay the full price for a set-top box and receive free-to-air channels free.

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    See also:
    17 Sep 99 |  UK
    Digital TV turn-on outlined
    17 Sep 99 |  UK
    Q&A: Digital TV
    17 Sep 99 |  Sci/Tech
    Freeing up the frequencies
    24 May 99 |  The Company File
    Digital price war hots up
    12 May 99 |  The Company File
    Digital television wars
    19 Apr 99 |  Entertainment
    Digital cable TV 'will be a hit'
    16 Mar 99 |  The Company File
    Telewest joins C&W for digital launch
    10 Feb 99 |  The Company File
    BSkyB winning digital race
    08 Dec 98 |  Entertainment
    ITV stretches its digits

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