Wright's Aerials

May 2003

aerialtopics/Terrestrial TV do we need it.jpgI've been on holiday in the Scottish Highlands. Like many other areas of the UK, the terrestrial television network there has countless low-powered transmitters, some serving only a few hundred houses. Some of these transmitters are at the end of a very long retransmission chain, and it shows.

We spent some time at Uig, on Skye. Uig's local transmitter receives from Skriaig, and I guess this reception must be fairly marginal, because the picture quality leaves much to be desired. BBC-1 in particular had that strange, indefinable mushy quality that you sometimes see at the end of an over-extended analogue cable TV system, and it was a while before I realised that the occasional impulse interference came from motorbikes not near me but near to the transmitter site - the receiving aerial being at the side of the main road into the town.

I don't usually bother with satellite TV in the motorhome, but after the first evening I threw in the towel with terrestrial and set the dish up. The difference was staggering, and it set me thinking. The enormously costly and complex analogue terrestrial network provides reception - sometimes less than perfect reception - of only five channels (four in the Highlands!). Looking at the houses in Uig the anachronistic nature of terrestrial transmission - analogue or digital - really strikes home, because the majority of them sport a Sky dish. Will there really be any point in re-engineering a network of over a thousand transmitters for terrestrial digital, when satellite provides a technically superior alternative?

I've heard that the main official justification for maintaining the terrestrial network is national security. It's thought that an enemy might zap the satellite and prevent HM Government from addressing us all in time of war. I wonder if this concern will be quietly forgotten when the time comes for the analogue switch-off in the more rural areas. I guess it will be much cheaper, in 2008 or whenever the time comes, to buy any remaining satellite refuseniks in Uig a dish and basic set top box than to re-engineer the repeater station. Perhaps in the future we will have perhaps a hundred rather than a thousand TV transmitters in the UK. Would this be yet another retreat for public service broadcasting, or merely the logical and cost-effective use of new technology?

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