The Broadcasting Act, 2009 gives the BAI responsibility for licensing DTT multiplex operators. The aim is to ensure the continued availability of a diversity of services and programming content in a digital era.
Digital broadcasting offers many advantages including: more efficient use of spectrum; the possibility of a greater level of content and content-related services for audiences and; new economic opportunities.
Digital terrestrial television, or DTT, is a way of sending digital signals – pictures and sound – to an aerial. A process called ‘digital multiplexing’ compresses, or squeezes, the digital signal so that it takes up less space than an analogue signal. A box on the viewer’s TV set, known as a set-top box, decodes the digital signal received by the aerial so that it can appear as pictures and sound through the person’s television.
“Traditional” television services in Ireland are received in one of four ways: by analogue signal (through a rooftop aerial), through a cable system, by MMD or by satellite (through a satellite dish).
Digital broadcasting services (through cable and MMD, and by satellite) have been widely available to the Irish public since the late 1990’s, on a subscription basis from a number of service-providers.
The European Union (EU) has agreed among its member states that the transmission of analogue television services will cease around 2015. This process is known as ‘analogue switch off’ or ASO and from that point onwards, television will no longer be available through analogue means.
The structure of the 2009 Act sees the platform as being ‘divided’ between various multiplex operators – RTÉ on the one hand and one or more BAI-licensed contractors on the other.
Under the 2009 Act, the BAI is required to licence commercial DTT in the State. In the first instance, the BAI will seek to licence three DTT multiplex operators for the establishment, maintenance and roll-out of commercial DTT in Ireland.
Separately under the 2009 Act, RTÉ has been assigned a single DTT multiplex to ensure the continued availability of the four existing free-to-air services in Ireland – that is, RTÉ 1, RTÉ 2, TG4 and TV3. RTÉ will establish and run this DTT multiplex independently of BCI-licensed multiplexes in fulfilment of its public-service obligations.
The original DTT licensing process was undertaken by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (“BCI”). In April 2008, applications were received from three groups and following a competitive application process, the BCI entered into contract negotiations with the first placed group, Boxer DTT Limited in July 2008. In April 2009, Boxer DTT Limited withdrew from the process citing prevailing and anticipated economic circumstances, in addition to challenges in successfully concluding a contract with RTÉ NL, to the satisfaction of both parties, for the provision of transmission services. In May 2009, the BCI entered into contract negotiations with the second placed applicant OneVision. That consortium was unable to conclude a contract with RTÉ NL, to the satisfaction of both parties, for the provision of transmission services. The BAI withdrew from contract negotiations with the consortium in April 2010. The contracts were then offered to the third placed applicant, Easy TV, in May 2010.
In August 2010, the BAI gave further detailed consideration to the prospects for commercial DTT in Ireland. It reiterated its disappointment that, having discharged its responsibilities under the 2009 Act, the outcome was that none of the three applicants had been able to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion. It also decided that it would not be practicable to re-activate a commercial DTT multiplex licensing process in the immediate future.
In making this decision, the Authority took a number of factors into account, including;
It is the considered view of the Authority that as part of the preparation for the successful launch of commercial DTT in the future, legislative change will be necessary to enable the Authority to have formal relationships with the applicants, as obtains at present, and with RTÉNL. This would enable it to engage formally with the provider of transmission services and to exercise or to invoke a statutory mediation process in the event of disagreement on the terms of the transmission arrangements between RTÉNL and any future successful applicant. The Authority will discuss this further with the Department.
The Authority now considers that it will not be feasible to introduce commercial DTT as originally intended until after Analogue Switch Off (ASO) at the earliest. The position will be reviewed towards the end of 2011 and the Authority may seek expressions of interest in the provision of commercial DTT at that point. A competition could potentially be held during 2012 with a view to commercial DTT being operational in 2013.
The Authority recognises the importance of a successful transition from Analogue to Digital transmission. It appreciates, also, the significance of the introduction of the PSB multiplex as the first step in this process. It welcomes the steps now being taken in this regard and will work closely with the Minister, the Department and other agencies to ensure that the interests of broadcasters and audiences are best served now and in the future.
The broadening of choice for viewers and the development of new sources of Irish originated content continue to be important priorities in the development of DTT in Ireland. The Authority will discuss with the Minister ways in which those objectives can most effectively be met within the context of the proposed PSB multiplex, pending the development of further commercial DTT possibilities.