Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


20.  Memorandum submitted by the Confederation of Aerial Industries Limited (CAI)

INTRODUCTION—WHO OR WHAT IS THE CAI?

  The CAI is the only representative body for the TV and Radio signal distribution industry.

  It functions as a non-profit making trade association but stretches beyond normal trade association boundaries in that it actively monitors and regulates its membership by its own inspectorate.

  Its broad aim is to:

    "Raise standards in the industry, unite the industry on its common aims and to keep abreast of technological change".

  The CAI is becoming more and more consumer facing, capitalising on increasing public requirement for guaranteed, quality service. Broadcasting is very much a mass media issue. The public is subjected more and more to consumer based programming where the focus is on "the best service and best price". We refer to it as the "Watchdog Factor", where companies deemed to have fallen short of certain standards are held to account for their failure at peak viewing time. Currently the CAI is handling 12 to 15 calls per day purely from the public seeking impartial information and help.

  The CAI guarantees its members work within the scope of individual receiving systems. A comprehensive back up of the mandatory 12 month guarantee on members' equipment and installation work is provided.

  At time of writing the CAI has over 600 member companies throughout the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. These range from the small installation businesses right through to the largest manufacturers and distributors of aerials and ancillary equipment. There are currently 17 members across Wales, including one of the leading UK manufacturers and distributors of aerial equipment.

  With the "link" between broadcaster and consumer coming more and more under scrutiny as the platforms for broadcasting extend, the CAI wishes to be consulted more over regulation that may be necessary to make sure the "playing field" is an even one. At the moment those installers who work to mandatory codes of practice cannot compete on price in a market place driven by price strategy.

  The CAI believes a "regulatory touch" is the only route to consumer protection against the nefarious practices that exist in industries where cost of entry is low but the results of negligence dire.

  HOW WELL IS WELSH TV RECEIVED?

  1.1.  A somewhat ambiguous question. Notorious for its terrain and the difficulties this imparts on broadcasters to reach its audience, Wales has other issues which have served to complicate the subject of the Welsh people watching TV dedicated to their lifestyle. The politics are for the Assembly to resolve, however, once the technicalities which in turn affect the market forces are understood, the broader picture of why the Welsh viewing habits exist in the patterns they do today, will also be addressable.

  1.2  As broadcasting spreads wider over a larger frequency bandwidth, then the complexities of viewing habits tend to rise in a certain proportion. Generally the UK is slower to change as the BBC and ITV companies have had a marked command of the market place, their resulting large available budgets giving us quality programming that is difficult to compete with.

  1.3  For this reason C4 has always struggled to command large viewing figures and an even lower spend from S4C would inevitably present less attractive viewing. There may be lessons to be learned from C5. This new channel has commanded admirable viewing figures considering its comparatively short time on air and without the luxury of comprehensive terrestrial coverage of the UK.

  1.4  Until the advent of satellite and now further platforms providing digital multiplexes, the very nature of analogue UHF broadcasting enabled programming to be received outside of their normal coverage area. Their nature is such that signals degrade gracefully—unlike digital where the data stream is lost as the signal falls over a "cliff-edge". Signal reception areas for digital are more clearly definable. Overlap of analogue signals has meant that over the years the area of Wales bordering English countries have been able to benefit from a choice of BBC, ITV regional programming and either S4C or C4 or both.

  1.5  Broadly categorised, viewers have been able to erect aerials enabling:

    BBC Northwest and Granada TV from Winter Hill across coastal North Wales.

    BBC Bristol and HTV West from Mendip or TWS/West county from Huntshaw Cross, receivable across South Wales.

    BBC Midlands and Central TV from The Wrekin, Shropshire across the Mid Borderland and Ridge Hill across the more southern Welsh counties (Powys and Gwent)

  Across these more heavily populated areas we have (according to installer sources in the CAI working South Wales), a take up of nearing 90 per cent for out of area TV services, ie, English programming to serve as an alternative to S4C. Here attraction to view S4C becomes "diluted". Moving into the more central, mid-Wales areas the choice simply does not exist as the local relay transmitter provides the restricted services of BBC, ITV and S4C. C5 only becomes an option via a satellite dish. (The reasons for this are explained later). Here S4C will enjoy higher viewing figures.

  1.6  What is evident at this stage is that the Welsh population living in the described areas of alternative coverage are quite willing to invest in the necessary aerial installation to view C4 and C5 where possible. An investment between £100 and £250 on combined receiving aerials is not uncommon.

2.  THE MULTI-CHANNEL OPTIONS

2.1  The Satellite Choice

  2.1.1  Until now the extension in multi-channel viewing has only been a restricted free satellite service in the early days of satellite, to what became a platform dominated by pay-TV giant BSkyB. However, the field has now widened. Firstly the complex history attached to the breaking down of the UHF TV frequency spectrum into digital multiplexes drove BSkyB into a competitive urge to extend its platform by accelerating its switch to digital broadcasting via the Astra satellite system. The desire by the BBC to broaden its offerings channel-wise also pushed forward its need to be on all platforms. With few other "drivers" other than ambition, BSkyB successfully launched its digital service, which also enables viewers to the system to see BBC, C4, C5 and SDN (S4C digital network). The only drawback here is the complexity of the deal. Both digital platforms are accessed by a set-top box (STB) and the product is subsidised. In the case of satellite this makes the installation, connection and possible subscription package complicated. A separate company operates the interactive side of the deal making the whole deal a skill in itself to explain to the customer.

  2.1.2  Satellite—though complex in its packages—does not have the reception problems associated with land-based transmitters. A satellite in orbit can cover an area 100 per cent from launch. The only potential loses on the group are those shielded by large buildings or foliage. (Estimates vary, but the aerial industry agrees that only 15 per cent of the population are unable to view satellites at the top of the arc either side of due south, this figure includes those restricted to terrestrial signals as they live in flats served only with terrestrial signals).

2.2  The Terrestrial Offerings

  2.2.1  Now referred to as "Digital through an Aerial" to help distinguish the prospects to the consumer, this platform has reception complexities all of its own. The terrestrial UHF network across the UK as whole was only ever planned around a 4-channel network. In most cases these channels were grouped nicely together enabling reception from a relatively low cost aerial installation. C5 changed the face of this plan, the channel restricted to areas where space in the spectrum could be found. This in itself creates a whole set of complexities making the reception of C5 difficult if you are not in a major population area. In other areas, only channels outside of the range of existing aerial installations could be found. Couple this with lower transmission powers and the viewer is faced with considerable investment in order to view a single extra channel.

  Up till now this has not deterred a high percentage of Welsh viewers seeking alternatives when the options are limited.

  2.2.2  We will now see however, that this appetite for an alternative creates a receiving aerial landscape that is not conductive to digital terrestrial reception.

3.  WALES AND DIGITAL TV

The Terrestrial UHF Frequency Spectrum Explained

  3.1  If we look closely at the Channel allocations for the Wenvoe transmitter serving the densely populated areas of South Wales the complexities of the Welsh TV reception issue become easier to understand. (See fig. 1)

  3.2  It must first be noted that the South Wales area has been unavoidably "short changed" with regard to digital multiplexes. Most of the UK will have access to 6 multiplexes—providing the necessary signal level is available—but Wenvoe has only been allocated 4 out of 6 meaning that 2 multiplex options carrying ONdigital packages will not be available for the foreseeable future. The reasons are simply related to the fact that more frequency space is needed to provide the multiplexes. Across the South Wales valleys the numerous relays are frequency "hungry" and the complexities of relocated channels already in use would be extremely costly and may disenfrachise too many existing analogue viewers.

  3.3  This makes the sale of an STB for digital through an aerial giving restricted service a somewhat "hard bargain" when pitched against a Sky package numbering in the "100's".

Figure 1

WENVOE CHANNEL ALLOCATIONS

21
D1
30
D2
34
3
41
1
44
4
47
2
51
D3
56
D4
67

68


  3.4  The box represents the complete UHF spread of channels from 21 to 68. 1 to 4 in the centre is the existing BBC, ITV and S4C channels. This conveniently illustrates the point made earlier about the "grouping" of channels for which an aerial can be manufactured that optimises reception of this "group". We can see the "D" numbers, representing the new digital multiplexes lie outside this group so an aerial change is called for should the viewer purchase an STB for digital.

  3.5  Add to this the scenario of the viewer combing 2 aerials for out of area reception of English C4 from Huntshaw Cross (Devon) or Mendip (Avon) then the nature of the installation further hinders the penetration of working STB's.

  3.6  Three technicalities intervene here:

    (a)  The response pattern of the aerials effectively screens out other frequencies.

    (b)  The combiner unit which "mixes" the aerials down the same cable and filters signals.

    (c)  The orientation of the out of area receiving aerial.

  The total of all three factors result in no digital frequencies will be present at the STB. A "wideband" aerial directed towards Wenvoe will need to replace the existing array in order to facilitate operation of a digital STB.

  3.7  Compared to the rest of the UK's heavily populated areas, the South East, Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Strathclyde, where frequencies have been located within existing aerial capability, then a radical aerial expenditure will be required across this particular area of Wales.

4.  ASSEMBLY COVERAGE AND THE WAY FORWARD

  4.1  In any area where UHF TV reception proves difficult because of terrain then satellite coverage is a logical step forward. There are definable limits with the use of a terrestrial network limited to a certain bandwidth. However in the immediate future a vacating of frequencies currently used for analogue and re-use digitally will enable more gaps to be filled by digital relay transmitters.

  4.2  In the short term, while an analogue "switch-off" would seriously disenfranchise many viewers, alternative means of reaching the maximum audience should be sought. Satellite can fulfil this destiny but its history so far has been slightly marred by two characteristics.

    (1)  Apart from the necessary purchase of hardware, there is the associated purchase of programme packages.

    (2)  The environmental stigma that a satellite dish is an unsightly "blot" on the landscape. (An interesting issue this when we consider nine million aerial masts on chimneys as acceptable and necessary).

  4.3  With the Welsh Assembly seeking a broadcast platform from a "standing start" digital or even existing analogue satellite do not offer any sort of mass audience. S4C is the obvious vehicle with maximum penetration via existing analogue terrestrial. However, there are undeniable benefits in promotion via digital satellite. As already argued close to 90 per cent of the population are covered and via the Astra satellite there is a potential "fast-track". Dish size has helped the cause with the smaller digital dishes allowed on chimneys in the same way as terrestrial aerials. This in turn gives even greater population penetration.

  4.4  The speed will be decided by the public decision to go with satellite as the favoured platform in the short term. The challenge lies in the marketing methods to relay the benefits of satellite TV.

  4.5  A key factor will be the price of multiple choice of programming against a small number of terrestrial channels from a complex, and therefore expensive, aerial installation. The nature of Welsh terrain demands highly expensive remote aerials feeding long cable runs. Some of these installations can amount to the cost of a satellite system plus a year's subscription to a full Sky programme package With the BBC looking towards "BBC Parliament" could it well herald the launch of "BBC Welsh Assembly"? The BBC is dedicated to all forms of broadcast platforms so this would seem to be the logical step forward to a new political era in Welsh history.

5.  THE CAI CAN HELP

  5.1  The CAI wishes it to be known that it will be well placed to help in any practical way it can in order to see that a quality supply and installation service is provided to the consumer.

  5.2  Some form of incentive may need to be offered if the Assembly wishes to be aired to a wide public platform. Market consultants employed to tackle that issue will need to consult the aerial industry more seriously than broadcasters have done so far.

  5.3  The CAI is willing to spend time with those employed to examine the logistics of reception, or even consult with the assembly directly. There will be no financial charge here, merely an assurance required that the CAI membership takes part in any reception projects resulting from a policy decision.

  5.4  Avoid this opportunity and purchasing on price may restrict any political ambitions held by the Assembly. The public may vote with their wallets or chequebooks when it comes to which platform offers the best value TV.

  5.5  With a "light regulatory touch" an even better policing of the aerial industry would be possible which in the long term would serve the population better. The CAI hopes to outline how this could be carried out by representation to the Department of Trade and Industry in the very near future.

Tim Jenks FSCTE CAI

Technical Executive

11 December 1998





 
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