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back to article UK digital terrestrial TV turns 14 today

is an occasional column focus on retro tech and digital archaeology. Today, a look back at the events that went into motion 14 years ago and led to the foundation of the bedrock of UK TV, Freeview. Freeview, Britain’s free-to-air terrestrial digital TV brand, is ten years old. It formally launched at the end of October 2002, so …

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I can't remember ever seeing a squariel.

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Squarials

The Squariel was for BSB - British Satellite Broadcasting - not BDB, the terrestrial outfit.

But anyway, here's a rare sighting of a squariel in the wild, just down the road from me:

http://flic.kr/p/cfe9bG

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Re: Squarials

Thank you for that. I cannot ever remember seeing one outside of adverts!

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Boffin

Freeview also made technical changes

It increased the interference robustness (at the cost of reduced bandwidth per multiplex). I can't remember if it switched to 8K mode from 2K mode or if that came later. That change also improved signal robustness but meant that the original STBs and TVs would no longer work.

Dodgy signal in many areas and suceptibility to impulsive interference (greatly improved by 8K mode) were major issues for On/ITV Digital so in addition to the free message this really helped.

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Re: Freeview also made technical changes

The 8K/2K switch was much later; it was changes to QAM that made the difference to robustness; the 16QAM gave slightly less bandwidth, but with fewer reception issues.

I had ONdigital pretty early on, but the reception on the commercial muxes was - even in London with a huge aerial - pretty ropy at some times of year.

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I was an ONDigital customer and took full advantage of their subsidy to get a decent domestic aerial installed. The rebranding exercise to ITV Digital was a joke - they even sent me a sticker to put over the old ONDigital logo on the box. And after the whole venture failed the receiver contacted me and asked for the box back - tricky as mine was integrated into my TV. My parents just ignored the request and their ONDIgital box still serves Freeview to anyone staying in their spare room.

I'm just glad that Monkey was rescued from the streets by Johnny Vegas and PG.

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MJI
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The sticker was an actual joke.

They admitted as such at the time.

They never requested the CAM back but wanted the dodgy box back then went bump.

It failed a few months later.

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Pint

Ooh I remember the vaguely threatening letter asking for the OnDigital back when they went belly up! Then I recall they broadcast a message to the boxes congratulating themselves for having a change of heart and giving us a free gift. Presuably they realised the cost of getting them all back would be more than the assets they'd get would be.

Mine was cheerfully in service until it blew up in 2008. Though I was under the impression the original ones stopped working after the digital switchover?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ONdigital#Set_top_boxes

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Yes, I had a phillips integrated digital telly, which had no epg 'cos onDigital hadn't written, or at least, air-loaded it. When the reciever chased me for return of the box and I told him to naff off, they wrote back asking for the subsidy they had paid Philips. I tore up the letter and sent it back in halves. They never replied again.

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I was on ONDigital, and had the Phillips box, which was a good piece of kit.

Getting it working was tricky. It needed a wide-band aerial to get all the multiplexes from the local transmitter, and since transmitter power was much lower, pre-switchover, I also had to install an amplifier and use the higher-grade co-ax cable. The jump in picture quality from the aerial upgrade was obvious.

You could class DTB as an example of the common British disease of good technology brought down by bad management.

I ended up doing my own aerial installation after a visit from an incompetent professional. If you cut into the coaxial downlead to do a test on the signal, you don't rejoin it by twisting the ends together and wrapping it in insulating tape.

A slightly later development in DTB tech would have also greatly reduced the need to have adjacent transmitters use different frequencies. Sometimes being first isn't so nice.

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@ Dave Bell

"I also had to install an amplifier and use the higher-grade co-ax cable. The jump in picture quality from the aerial upgrade was obvious"

Ah yes, that old Monster Cables trick - with better cables and a stronger signal, the 1's and 0's are even higher quality 1's and 0's = better picture quality! Ummm......

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Re: @ Dave Bell

Yes but there is a threshold below which the 1's and 0's can't be made into anything. So decent signal strength and data quality counted with the weaker signals. It showed up just how bad a lot of people's coax had become over the usually 30+ years it had been exposed to the weather.

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@ Refugee from Windows

Indeed, but there is a difference between picture *quality* and simply whether you receive a picture at all. If the 1's and 0's can't be made into anything, the result is no picture, or at least severely broken up picture. That's not picture quality.

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Re: @Better 1s and 0s

More of them are getting through hence a better picture.

Rather than being noise

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MJI
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Early days

Ondigital those encrpted channels you could not watch.

FTA DTTV was pretty good, I got it mainly as an anamorphic broadcast source for a widescreen TV.

I had a first generation Sony IDTV, excellent picture, a good tuner, better than the Ondodgy ones.

A £3 per month offer was made to all IDTV owners, I was loaned a Nokia Mediamaster (yuk) for pay TV until my TV software could handle the OnCAM.

After the CAM was working recording was painfull as removing the smart card from the TV was awkwards, then messing with the timers on the Nokia and my Sanyo VTCM40. At this stage I considered Elvis programmer simply to clone my 18 channel (AFAIR) subscription. But then they were looking dodgy so I cancelled just before they went bump.

The MM failed the following year so I replaced with a Pace Twin now not working due to poor support from Pace they do not work in post switchover areas due to software issues.

The TV tuner would have failed DSO as well but I wanted an HDTV. I would have been in the position of lots of digital TV kit not working.

The early BBC broadcasts were high bit rate and very DVD like, combined with a Wega tube, they looked fantastic.

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Flame

Freeview radio - whats the point?

There arn't any actual radio receivers than can pick it up, only TV set top boxes. And who the hell listens to radio on their TV? A lot of stations won't even join it because the fees are so high. They should ditch it and use the bandwidth for an extra TV channel or 2.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

Being a drug-addled 20something, I and my friends will often stick the radio on on the TV in the background of gatherings. It's a very handy thing to have.

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WTF?

Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

Don't you own a radio?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

Actually, no, but even if I did, my TV has better speakers and is ideally placed anyway.

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Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

We no longer own a radio (in the house) because of Freeview Radio in the lounge and bedroom; not gullible enough to get anything DAB. Other rooms, computers play internet radio mostly, and occasionally in the lounge.

"Who wants to listen to radio through the TV?" - who listens to TV sound other than through the hifi?

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FAIL

Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

"Freeview radio - whats the point?"

Pretty much everyone has worked out that it's easier to listen to the radio on a TV than on an actual radio, especially when you have the TV hooked up to your amplifier.

It is the likes of digital radio through Freeview, satellite, etc. that is making DAB not as relevant as it should be - clearly a lot of people are finding it easier to listen to digital radio via the TV instead of paying hundreds of pounds on a DAB stereo.

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Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

boltar

And also to pick up on Anonymous Coward's point - funnily enough I also own a radio. It's embedded in the exact same amp as what is used to pick up the audio from the TV. However, guess which one I use... that's right, the TV!

For one, being digital there's more radio stations on the TV and I'm already using it for TV broadcasts, so it's trivial to also use it for radio broadcasts.

And no, I'm not going to buy a DAB radio to connect to the amp or even replace the amp with one that has DAB embedded in it just to listen to the same digital radio stations I can already listen to now via Freeview.

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Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

we have a DAB in the bedroom and the kitchen and a portable unit for the car, but in the lounge, we play back all media - audio & video through the TV - either from Freesat radio stations, the PS3 or the ICS Tablet(s) - some stations are only available on certain platforms.

eg we listen to Nation and Nation 80's via DAB, but internet stations like Gaydio (manchester) via the 'Droids.

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Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

"who listens to TV sound other than through the hifi?"

Umm , pretty much everyone these days. You'll be hard pressed to find many shops that even sell proper hi-fi amps any more.

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Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

"Pretty much everyone has worked out that it's easier to listen to the radio on a TV than on an actual radio, especially when you have the TV hooked up to your amplifier."

Good luck with that in the garden/bath/bedroom.

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WTF?

Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

"And no, I'm not going to buy a DAB radio to connect to the amp or even replace the amp with one that has DAB embedded in it just to listen to the same digital radio stations I can already listen to now via Freeview."

I don't know where you live but there are at least a dozen stations in london on DAB that arn't on Freeview. LBC, Chill, JazzFM , Absolute 80s/90s BBC London etc. In fact there are more stations on FM than on Freeview. Perhaps freeview radio serves a purpose out in the wilds of norfolk or scotland or whereever, but down here its just a 2nd rate me-too service.

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Coat

Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

...and there are yet more radio stations again on the internet.

I prefer Polish ones, there's a set of genre-oriented stations with no talk and very very occasional adverts. But because they're in Polish, I can't understand a word so they don't intrude on my train of thought. (yes, I'm one of those people who hate it when a radio person says anything more than "That was Band B with track T, next group G with song S...")

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Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

> use the bandwidth for an extra TV channel or 2

All the radio bandwidth grouped together would be nowhere near enough for even one TV channel.

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Re: Freeview radio - whats the point?

That's a very fair point.

For the radio I want, and where I live, DAB is a poor second.

You sound to be getting some stations that I would try, but I am getting to the point where Radio 2 is feeling a little too modern for my tastes. When do we get The Beatles on Radio 3?

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OnDigital Pace

Still have an OnDigital Pace box in the computer room.

Used it for freeview watching. Works better than its later application as an NTL/VirginMedia box - the latter of which was slow and buggy.

Haven't tried it since the switchover (recently in NI), have heard rumours that these boxes may no longer work. This has inspired me to test it tonight!

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Re: OnDigital Pace

As I understand it there are now too many channels for the original box to be able to cope with it. I don't have one to check if that is true or not though.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: OnDigital Pace

They can't cope with the 8K encoding brought in for the "digital switchover", so have recently become paperweights.

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Re: OnDigital Pace

A nice non-functional relic of broadcasting history now I guess.

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We got our first (the original, I believe) On Digital box with a year's subscription from an auction site for £50 in 2000. I was travelling at the time and a friend sorted it all out for me (not bad - it was supposed to be one box per customer but they let him order two). And we never paid a subscription fee due to changes of ownership and the business of ITV Digital going bust over football.

Fast forward twelve years and as far as I can tell we have the best none satellite, digital TV service in the world for nothing more than the license fee!

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its upfront cost was 80 per cent cheaper than ONdigital: £159 to the £199

Erm... who the hell taught you countimatics? blimey.

That's "20% cheaper", or "80% of the price".

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FAIL

Returning the STBs

I too remember ITV Digital's receivers demanding £150 or similar to keep the old Pace set top box, a letter at which we laughed then ignored. If they wanted it back they were welcome to collect or provide return postage, whereupon they would end up with a warehouse full of industrial waste that would cost them much much more to dispose of legally. How we laughed.... I do hope not-too-many gullible grannies fell for it.

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Re: Returning the STBs

I'm one of those "gullible grannies". but it all turned out fine, once they'd relented they just refunded the money.

Think it was more like 50 rather than 150 though. Could be wrong, it's ages ago.

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Actually in Germany

The early "set top boxes" running broadcaster developed software now mostly serve their life as boxes running alternative software.

There were essentially 2 generations of set top boxes mandated by the broadcasters in the early days (pre 2000) of digital television. The dBox and the dBox 2. The first one was a modified Nokia Mediamaster, having a 68k processor and a nice 8 digit LED display made out of individual dies. You can get it for less than the display. You can run the original Nokia Mediamaster software on it, but even the software it came with is kinda acceptable.

The dBox 2 shipped with some sort of Unix running on a PPC with 66 MHz or so. The actual software was written in Java and god awful slow. It not only took several minutes to boot, if you pressed a button, you had to wait... for the "please wait" text to appear... then after a minute or so the menu opened. The GUI part of one of the software projects to get Linux on those devices now powers the Dreambox receivers. (probably the best boxed FTA receivers you can buy, I think they even support CA modules) It's amazing to see how much such a little old box can do once you install proper software. If stations in Germany wouldn't have gone past 9 MBit peak rate, you could even still use them as videodisk recorders. (the Ethernet interface in those only supports 10 MBit half duplex)

Anyhow the original dBox was a huge loss. They didn't get as many subscribers as they wanted to, and each box cost them about 1200 DM while selling them at 800 DM. (a pound was 3 DM back then) I think the company, which is now called Sky Germany, still makes losses.

Other than that, DVB-T never has been a pressing issue in Germany. From the early 1990s on people simply had either satellite dishes or cable. Digital and analogue satellite co-existed until this year when analogue satellite television was turned off. Analogue cable is still in widespread use since cable operators tend to encrypt TV channels and next to nobody wants to deal with the hassle of decryption. Terrestrial television kinda died out in the 1990s when analogue transmissions were stopped only about 4% of the households were using it. This number may have risen since then since in more densely populated areas DVB-T is a serious alternative to cable.

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fond memories

we got ondigital at the house I lived at when I was at university from 1998-2001. It was certainly a welcome addition to a house with 6 students all not doing too much for most of the day.

We had to have a big aerial put up (which last time I drove past the house in Lancaster, is still there) but there was still plenty of interference every now and then.

We moved out of the house due to finishing uni right at the time it changed to ITV Digital.

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Anonymous Coward

Got a bigger picture of the TV shown on the front page to this story?

The small picture is here: http://regmedia.co.uk/2011/12/14/tv.jpg

Anyone got a link to the original full size image?

Think it is a Bush TV, and if so was the first TV I watched back in late 60's - saw the moon landings on it.

Used to sit behind it and look at the valves glowing whilst waiting for it to warm up. (Thoughts of the YouvView Box starting up...)

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Terminator

Re: Got a bigger picture of the TV shown on the front page to this story?

Looks pretty similar to the 1955 Bush TV53 or the 1958 GEC BT2253. TVs were a lot more expensive back then so people probably held on to them for longer than they do now. (Incidentally, you might want to switch safe search on if you do a Google image search for "1960s bush")

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Anonymous Coward

I got my Pace DVB box mid 2002 before Freeview appeared. It was a good box, although it would lock up now and then before resetting. I remember hearing of some of my work colleagues working at Pace testing it, so I blame them :) (I think it was running Risc OS, although I can't be sure).

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Happy

did you mean..?

... 20% cheaper or 80% of the cost 159:199 is 80:100

As an aside, I had Sky digital 2 weeks after its launch and NTL Digital soon afterwards. What an improvement! gave a new lease of life to my Toshiba TV. RGB scart. Pictures as good as from my BSB receiver - also RGB scart. Mind you , I never had a squarial, only a square-ish dish, but it was very small compared to the Amstrad dustbin-lids of the same era.

didn't the changeover to full digital knock out these older boxes?

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FAIL

Their Sky channel wasn't the same as on Sky...

I was an early adopter of OnDigital and there were many problems with it. Even with a decent aerial upgrade, reception was pretty poor and next door's lawnmower would reduce the picture to a myriad of digital artefacts. However, the main reason for ditching them and going to Sky was that they didn't carry the full range of programming on their so-called Sky channel. This was because Sky only had the broadcast rights for satellite, and OnDigital were too tight to purchase the terestrial rights. When certain programs were on Sky (Seinfeld being the one I remember) OnDigital would show "America's most dangerous pets" or other such garbage. I gave the box to my in-laws and they carried on using it for several years until it finally died.

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Counterfeit Cards

My flatmate acquired a counterfeit On Digital card for about £50 from a man in a pub. It gave us every single pay channel, including pay per view which, as an impoverished student, was awesome!

On the downside I got abysmal grades for that year of uni largely due to staying up until stupid o'clock watching nonsense like Wrestlemania. Ho hum!

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Re: Counterfeit Cards

The conditional access system, SECA, that OnDigital used was actually already broken on satellite systems when the service started. The info was fairly readily available if you knew where to look, and I used it as an example of how not to design a security system in an internal talk where I used to work.

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Re: Counterfeit Cards

Well designing a secure Pay-TV system is per definition impossible, since Bob and Malice work together.

If you can't break the encryption you can get the decrypted signal from Bob.

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Re: Counterfeit Cards

but who broke it?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17494723

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Big Brother

Channel 5

" Back then, Brits seemed satisfied with a pair of BBC channels, whatever broadcasters was running ITV in their region [...] and Channel 4"

And whatever soft grumble flick Channel 5 were screening. Red shoe diaries or similar I'd imagine.

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Re: Channel 5

If you could actually tell it was a grumble flick through the fuzz on the under powered analogue broadcast on most transmitters.

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