The digital TV switchover – why are we having it?

In 2008 the analog TV system in Australia was switched off. Just kidding! And so, apparently, was the Australian government, which had previously set 2008 as the year when Australian TV would go fully digital. Not surprisingly, as the day grew close, the prospect of irritating a few million voters became distinctly unappealing, and so the date was deferred.

But now we can say with a great deal of confidence that progressively, from early next year until 2013, the free-to air analog TV system in Australian will indeed be switched off.

Why? And what will it all mean? And what will you have to do? Read on, while we sort it all out.

Why are we having the Great Digital Switchover?

All this is happening to deliver benefits to everyone. There may be a tiny amount of pain for some in order to yield those benefits, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

The benefits for the broadcasters, and for the government, and for you and us, include the greater efficiency of digital broadcasting over analog.

The bandwidth – ‘space’ in the radio frequency spectrum – used by each analog TV station is 7MHz. But with modern digital formats you can stuff about four TV signals into that same space.

And each of those four signals is actually of higher quality than analog TV.

Analog TV is of lower resolution than even standard definition digital TV. The latter is 720 pixels across by 576 tall (720 x 576), whereas analog TV is typically around 500 pixels across.

The one digital ‘channel’ can be used in flexible ways, such as by transmitting a couple of standard definition services, plus a high definition one. HD bumps up the resolution to 1920 x 1080 pixels, allowing superb picture quality on the very best TVs and other display devices.

So digital TV potentially – and in actuality as we will see shortly – allows for more TV programming into your home. Both you and the broadcaster benefit from that.

Analog TV is also limited to a 4:3 aspect ratio, while almost all new material is being produced in widescreen formats. Digital TV’s 16:9 aspect ratio suits this much better.

In fact, at the moment programming is bit of a pain for the free-to air (or Freeview) TV stations because many programs have to be simulcast in two different formats – 4:3 via analog and 16:9 via digital. So getting rid of analog is something the broadcasters find welcome.

Getting rid of analog TV

It was never intended that digital TV would be in addition to analog TV. Right from the start it was expected to be a replacement.

A replacement, to be sure, with higher quality and more diversity, but still a replacement. After all, the main point was to allow more programming without using up more of the radio frequency spectrum.

Late last year the government judged that the time was right to finally pull the plug on analog TV. Or, to be more precise, to start pulling the plug.
Rather than adopting a crash-through-or-crash tactic, it has sensibly decided to phase in the changeover through an extensive period of time, commencing next year and finishing in 2013. It’s first putting its toe in the water in the Mildura region of Victoria during the first half of 2010, and will be finishing with the capital cities and the more remote parts of Australia in 2013.

As of the middle of this year, government figures show that in a little over half of Australian homes the ‘main’ TV is now digital.

That implies a lot of homes not ready for the switch. But the same survey revealed that 83% of households are happy enough to switch over, although three quarters propose waiting until it becomes necessary for their area.

Thanks to the phased implementation, rushes on limited supplies of digital set-top boxes and digital TVs should be minimised.

So, if you’re one of those three-quarters who are going to wait until the last moment, the table below shows the period to watch out for. The precise switch-off date for each period has yet to be set, but it is likely to be towards, or at the end of, the half-year, with plenty of local warning.

Additional reading

To learn more about the digital TV switchover, what it will bring and what you need to do, click the titles below to read related stories on this topic.

The digital TV switchover – what does it change or improve? – The switchover to digital TV offer greater choice and quality, but once the analog switch-off deadline has been reached in your area, to enjoy any TV there’s a few things you may need to do.

The digital TV switchover – what do you need to do? – The digital switchover – what TV will you need, and do you need a set-top box?