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Let's get digital

27 March 2008

We all know that digital TV is on the way, but lots of us have yet to get ready for the switchover, it seems. Ross Bentley reports.

Digital television is soon to take over in the UK, but it seems many hoteliers are unprepared for it.

Over the next three-and-a-half years, region by region, the UK's analogue television broadcast signal will be switched off and replaced with a digital signal. This process is being called the "digital switchover" and any TV sets not converted to digital when the switchover takes place will no longer receive TV programmes.

But, according to recent research by Digital UK, the body that has been set up to offer advice about the switchover, while three-quarters of UK hoteliers and B&B owners surveyed said that availability of television was important in letting their rooms, 47% said they had not yet switched to digital. What's more, 54% of those who have not fully converted their properties to digital TV say they have no plans in place to do so.

"With the switchover gathering pace over the next 12 months, the tourism sector must do more to avoid guests coming downstairs to complain that there really is nothing on TV," said Jane Ostler, Digital UK's director of housing.

In fact, digital switchover has already been completed in the remote area of Whitehaven in Cumbria, which became the first place in the UK to lose its analogue signal altogether in October last year.

Later on this year the Borders region will go digital, followed next year by the West Country, Wales and Granada regions. By the end of 2012, TV services in the whole of the UK, with the exception of the Channel Islands, will have gone completely digital.

Many hotels will already have digital and will have had a taste of what it offers. Compared with traditional TV, digital brings extra channels as standard including BBC Three, ITV2, E4, More 4, S4C2, Sky News, Cbeebies, CBBC, CITV, ITV3 and Film4 as well as about 20 radio channels.

There is also the option of subscribing to channels dedicated to sport, films and music, and using features, such as on-screen TV listings, true widescreen picture and red-button interactivity.

Digital TV can also improve the quality of your TV picture, while some digital boxes have special features for people with visual and hearing impairments, such as audio description and subtitling.

But what should hoteliers be doing to prepare for the switchover?

Gary Francies, director of VDA, a company specialising in in-room entertainment, recommends hoteliers first carry out a simple test to see if their current aerial set-up gives them good enough reception to receive digital pictures.

"They should connect a Freeview set to the aerial lead in a guest bedroom and see if they receive the Freeview channels available in that area," he says.

Freeview boxes, which convert the digital signals, so they can be received on traditional TVs, have come down in price and size of late and can be bought for as little as £15. The other option is to buy a TV with an integrated digital receiver. All the latest flat-screen models on the market have this capability built-in.

At Forbes Direct, a firm that rents flat-screen TVs to hotels - around £7 a month for a 19in screen - sales director Gerry Raby says the aerial set-up is crucial in getting a good digital picture.

"With analogue, if you had a bad signal you could still watch the television, but with digital the reception has to be good, or the picture will freeze," he says.

According to Francies at VDA, there are three types of installations typically found in hotels and B&Bs.

First, there are installations where TVs are directly connected to an external aerial. This is a pure analogue set-up, where there is nothing controlling the signal going to the separate rooms. This arrangement is usually found in smaller properties.

Properties in this situation will need to plug a Freeview box into their TVs or have a "head end" installed. A head end is the industry jargon for a box that sits beneath the aerial, often in the loft, converts and boosts digital signals and allows hotel owners to control which channels can be accessed in the rooms.

Second, there are properties that already have their TVs connected to a central head end that distributes the signals. These head ends are typically configured to accept both analogue and digital signals and to convert the digital to analogue.

"It is highly probable the head end is already capable of converting digital signals to analogue," Francies says. "The clue would be if the hotel is distributing Sky or other satellite channels. If they are, they have started the migration to digital."

The third scenario is the few properties that have their TVs connected to Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) servers. These properties are already capable of managing digital and no further investment is necessary.

Francies says larger hotels, who may be considering buying a Freeview box for each room, should consider investing in an IPTV infrastructure. As well as incorporating digital signals, he says, this set-up can also receive programmes over the internet, a big growth market - with the BBC's iPlayer service being the latest innovation.

He added: "Hotels considering the transition from analogue to digital should look at the bigger picture of how they will manage the changing trends of TV broadcast. How will they manage the demand for an increased number of channels, access to iPlayer, and the other internet services that are coming?

"Coaxial aerials will start to expose their limitations over the next five years. The future-proof solution is IPTV."

Buyer beware

According to Andrew Davies, owner of the Glenfield Guest House in Whitehaven, Cumbria, small property owners should beware of expensive quotes from large suppliers who promise to take care of their digital switchover issues.

Whitehaven was the first area to switchover fully to digital last autumn, and Davies says he received quotes of between £4,000 and £6,000 to convert his four-star, six-bedroom property.

"There was no way we could afford this" he said. "In the end I found a local tradesman, who did the work for £1,000."

Davies says this work involved upgrading the roof aerial and putting in a booster, buying a set-top Freeview box for each room and changing the plugs behind each TV - previously the televisions had been hard-wired into the wall.

"This means we have two remote handsets for each room - one for the Freeview box and one for the TV - and some guests have complained about how this causes confusion," he said.

Davies now intends to phase in flat-screen TVs with built-in digital receivers for each room and has already purchased a couple of sets.

"We bought a 32in flat screen for our luxury double room, which cost about £800," he says. "We have also put a smaller set in one of the single rooms at a cost of about £250."

Timetable

When will the digital switchover take place in your region?

Border 2008-09

West Country, Granada 2009

Wales 2009-10

West, STV North 2010-11

STV Central 2010-11

Central, Yorkshire, Anglia 2011

Meridian, London 2012

Tyne Tees, Ulster 2012

The Channel Islands will be switching over fully to digital TV and this is scheduled for the first quarter of 2013. However, the actual dates for switchover in the Channel Islands are subject to negotiations with France.

Contacts

Digital UK: www.digitaluk.co.uk

VDA: www.vdavda.com

Forbes Direct: www.forbesdirect.tv

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