THIS Wednesday, some TV viewers in Northern Ireland may notice a difference in their channels.
The analogue television signal, which has been used to broadcast television images since the technology was first launched, will begin being switched off.
It is thought to be the biggest single change to television since the introduction of colour, and Northern Ireland is the last region of the UK to see it happen.
Once the whole switchover has occurred, viewers will be able to see at least 15 channels, including the normal five which they can receive for free with their TV aerials.
The authorities have been warning for years that this change was coming, and if any viewers are not yet ready they have just days left before the changes start to kick in.
It is thought that most viewers are now prepared.
However, the elderly, sick or those that live alone may be most at risk of being left behind by the changes – but help is available for those who need it.
For anyone coming to it for the first time, the whole process can seem quite complicated.
But the News Letter will attempt to explain here what is happening, when – and why.
Over the course of Wednesday engineers will spend the day shutting down the analogue signal in Northern Ireland – but this will affect BBC2 only.
Also, it will NOT affect anyone who has satellite television or cable television.
But for those using “traditional” TV aerials, unless they have taken the right measures, once the analogue signal goes off they will not be able to get BBC2.
But if such viewers do one of the following two things, they should not face any problems:
One: if they have televisions which have been bought quite recently (say over the last five years for instance), it is likely they can accept digital signals already – these sets come with a sticker with a tick on them.
Or two: if those householders with older or less sophisticated televisions have bought a set-top box (also known as a Freeview box, and available from electronics retailers for about £15 upwards) they will not have problems either.
Once the changes happen on Wednesday, these viewers will find themselves able to receive BBC1 and 2, plus BBC3, BBC4, and a host of other niche BBC channels, as well as the corporation’s digital radio service.
Again, other channels will not be affected.
However, those who already have set-top boxes or new TVs will have to retune their televisions to pick up the new digital signal on October 10.
That is the first wave of the switchover.
But it is a kind of dress rehearsal for the bigger changes, which happen on October 24.
On that date, all the other analogue channels will be shut down – including BBC1, UTV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and the RTE channels.
By that stage it is hoped that everyone will either have sorted out their televisions in readiness for the switchover, or made arrangements to do so.
When it comes to RTE things get a little more complicated.
In order to get RTE, viewers with “traditional” TV aerials may need to buy a set-top box called a Freeview HD box, which costs from about £35 from electronics retailers.
This will allow users to get the minimum 15 UK digital channels in high definition, plus RTE channels – but before viewers buy one it is best to check beforehand if they need it.
At the moment, most of Northern Ireland can already receive the roughly 40 available digital UK channels, although the signals are sometimes not very strong.
But as of October 10, the power will be cranked up on the BBC digital signal, allowing almost everyone to receive BBC digital channels, and allowing those who already get them to have better reception.
The remainder of the digital channels, including RTE, come October 24, will also see the reception and the range of the signal increased.
The organisation set up to deal with the changes is Digital UK.
Asked why the country is going to all this trouble in the first place, Denis Wolinski, head of the Northern Irish branch of Digital UK, said: “It’s much better television. Analogue television uses a huge amount of spectrum (which is the “space” in the airwaves which signals travel over).”
He added that digital makes more efficient use of the airwaves, and carries more channels.
“It’s the march of technology,” he said.
“This is a very, very straightforward change for most people. You buy a box, plug it in, and come switchover press the buttons.
“If you’re having any difficulty, ring our advice lines and someone will talk you through it. They’re very, very patient people.”
Asked how many people he expects to be left behind, he said: “Nobody. We’ve never had anybody left behind anywhere else. The only people are those who haven’t noticed that all this publicity is going on, and they found they’ve lost BBC2.
“They will talk to someone and say ‘what’s happening to the TV?’
“They’ll go and buy a box and it will be up and running again.”
Asked about whether he had faced much confusion from the public on the issue, he said: “You’re about the most confused person.
“If the experience of the other regions of the UK are anything to go by, there are very few people who experience difficulties.
“But for those that do, there’s lots of help.”
That is where the BBC Help Scheme comes in.
The BBC is in charge of making sure that everyone who is eligible for help switching over gets it.
It started sending letters out offering help in April to 290,000 homes in the Province, and began the installation of equipment for the scheme in June.
Running the scheme is Nigel Tilson – and it is no small task.
He said: “We’ve written to them up to three times. Over half of them have responded to us but they don’t all want our help. A lot of them have told us they’re sorted already.
“But, at the moment, it’s looking like out of the 290,000 around 30 per cent will get help from us.
“The thing I want to emphasise is that people are confused about it all – there’s no doubt about it.
“But anybody who’s eligible for help can get help for a month after switchover. In other words until November 24 the help scheme is open.”
After that date, installations will continue – but viewers must register for them by that date.
People are eligible for the BBC Help Scheme if they are any of the following: over 75, living in a care home for six months plus, blind or partially sighted, claiming disability living allowance and a handful of other categories.
Most people will be asked to pay £40 towards the help, which includes the conversion of one set per house by an approved installer to supply and install the necessary equipment.
For more information about the BBC Help Scheme specifically, call 0800 4085900 or visit www.helpscheme.co.uk.
The advice line to ring for Digital UK is 08456 505050. Alternatively, go to its website www.digitaluk.co.uk.