Ireland - Free set-top boxes to boost digital take-up



The government and RTE are planning to make digital television generally available in Dublin this year, with some homes being given set-top boxes worth €150 free of charge.

In the first step in Ireland's switch from analogue to digital, Dermot Ahern, the communications minister, is finalising a two-year pilot project that will make Irish television stations available digitally to 1m viewers.

If the project is successful, it is likely to be extended to the rest of the country, Ahern's officials say. Irish channels — RTE 1, Network 2, TV3 and TG4 — will be available on the state's digital platform with an invitation being extended to British channels to sign up.

"If BBC and ITV want to join, that's fine by us," said a department official. "There is no reason why not — it won't cost them anything."

Digital television is already available in Ireland through BSkyB, in which News International, owner of The Sunday Times, has a 35.4% stake, and through NTL on satellite and cable. But the government plans to offer viewers a basic package of eight to 10 channels at low cost instead of the much more expensive packages sold by commercial operators.

"I may not want to pay NTL or Sky €600 a year to get 600 channels, I may be happy with six or seven," said an official in Ahern's department. "The government believes it has a duty to provide a digital platform to accommodate those people. So we will have a government-sponsored digital platform with a basic service.
"People will pay a one-off fee of about €80 for set-top boxes and there will be no more payments. We feel that it's enough that people have to pay the €152-a-year television licence fee. Why should they have to pay for 600 digital channels when all they want is a basic service?"

To make the pilot project a success, the communications department is prepared to give free set-top boxes to some viewers. Otherwise there would be little incentive for existing NTL, Chorus or Sky customers to buy the boxes to get channels they already have.

"They will be given to libraries, state buildings, educational institutions, and maybe even some residences," the official said. "The purpose of the project is to assess demand for digital. We may add on services during the two years."

"If the digital terrestrial television plan works, it could have a serious effect on cable and MMDS providers. Most of their customers just buy the basic service, which is what the government will be offering, while the majority of Sky's customers buy premium packages."

Ireland has not set a date for the switch to digital, but can be expected to close down the analogue network in about 2010.