7 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Digital TV Given Legislative Framework
10 Jun 1999 :
New broadcasting legislation which provides a framework for the introduction of digital television into Ireland was recently announced by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Síle de Valera. The Broadcasting Bill 1999 is the first major piece of broadcasting legislation since 1988 and allows for the creation of a new digital terrestrial distributional entity called Digico. It is expected to be law by December.

The control of digital television transmission in Ireland will rest entirely with Digico. It is charged with building and operating the digital TV infrastructure and with promoting the development of other multimedia services. In return for a minority stake of up to 40 per cent in the new company, RTÉ will give its transmission network to Digico. According to RTÉ director general Bob Collins, the station will operate at "arms-length" from the new company. RTÉ is expected to transfer its transmission network to Digico within about 18 months.

Commercial partners for Digico which have both the necessary expertise and available capital are currently being sought, and will be chosen by public tender. The new consortium will fund the transmission and distribution infrastructure to facilitate digital broadcasting. This will cost an estimated £35-£40 million.

RTÉ themselves will spend an estimated £30 to £35 million to upgrade their own facilities for digital transmission, and are planning to introduce digital broadcasting services by the second half of next year. In order to allow for interactivity, RTÉ's own digital terrestrial broadcast service will have a built-in return path, or back-channel, via the domestic rooftop antenna. This concept is called Wireless Interactive Network for Digital Services (WINDS), and has been developed with the assistance of EU grants.

The chosen method of delivery in Ireland is digital terrestrial television (DTT). It is the lowest cost delivery system and is the only digital TV delivery system capable of giving universal service and good quality reception on portable TV sets to a high percentage of homes. Digico will control the operation of all channels through six multiplexes. A multiplex is a selection of digital services which are packaged together to enable them to be transmitted in a channel which previously could only have been used for a single analogue service. In the UK, the BBC offer BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC News 24 and BBC Choice packaged together as a multiplex of services. The infrastructure will provide six multiplexes, leading to an availability of 30 to 50 television channels. Each multiplex will carry about five channels.

RTÉ will have sole rights to the capacity of one of the multiplexes and a second will be shared by TV3 and TnaG. The remaining four will be offered commercially to generate income, and may carry UK terrestrial channels as subscription services as well as premium services such as sports and movie channels. Internet access and other interactive services may be also available. Digico will control the electronic programme guide (EPG) which will facilitate navigation through digital TV land. Later on, this EPG may offer services such as on-screen features relating to programming in a similar vein to printed programme magazines.

The new consortium will also control the access systems to television stations. This means that Digico may ultimately determine what is available free to all viewers and what is available only to paying subscribers i.e. scrambled or encrypted. It is likely that a tiered subscription system will exist, and may take the following format:

Tier 1 - free access to broadcast services which originate in Ireland
Tier 2 - access to UK terrestrial channels
Tier 3 - additional Irish broadcast services e.g. extended RTÉ news, RTÉ education channel, RTÉ repeat channel and additional TnaG/TV3 services
Tier 4 - additional UK multi-channel services provided by BBC & BSkyB
Tier 5 - pay-per-view services

In other proposals, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission is to get an expanded remit and will now cover complaints relating to all legal broadcasters. The Bill also allows for the establishment of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. It will basically be the Independent Radio and Television Commission with increased powers, and will regulate programme and advertising standards whether they are transmitted via cable, satellite or terrestrial means. TnaG will also be separated from under the umbrella of RTÉ and will be established as an independent statutory body. With regard to the dispute between the independent sector and RTÉ over the amount available for independent productions, Minister de Valera promised to amend the Bill at committee stage to include a formula for linking the annual increases on independent production and the RTÉ spend on in-house programme production.

In a balancing act between the demands of the socio-cultural aspects of broadcasting and the developing technologies, public service broadcasting is defined in the legislation as a service providing virtually universal coverage, which is free to viewers and listeners at the point of reception and provides a comprehensive programme schedule. While noting the importance of the commercial sector, Minister de Valera said that the new technologies increase rather than decrease the need for public service broadcasting. "There is a real danger that if broadcasting is left just to the market it would become excessively concentrated", she said.

by Anthony Quinn

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