The Irish Times reports that 80% of households in the Republic will have freeview coverage by the end of 2009. The switch-over for the Republic is meant to take place in 2012. As well as RTE1, RTE2, TV3 and TG4 there will be four new channels to encourage people to convert to digital earlier - those channels are Dáil TV, Irish Film Channel, RTE3 (mostly archive material) and RTE1+1.
The SDLP are lobbying for all the southern broadcasters to join the free-to-view platform in the North. They believe "the government has a duty to extend the scope of availability of Irish broadcasting in Northern Ireland"(1) under the Good Friday Agreement and when the recent funding for the Irish Language Broadcasting Fund was renewed, the SDLP said that there is a "huge opportunity to boost the Irish language in the north of Ireland being missed"(2) because many Irish speakers in the North cannot receive these Irish language TV and radio channels.
Post-2012 when the analogue TV signal is turned off, there will still be some signal spill-over along the Border, but it won't be as much spill-over with digital as there is with the analogue signal. People along the Border living in the South are already taking advantage of Freeview TV broadcast from transmitters in the North, so they can continue to watch NI channels. However, people who don't live near the Border could be cut-off from the TV channels they watch every day. That's why it's so important that an all-Ireland agreement is reached so people throughout Ireland can watch the same TV channels - whether they are British or Irish.
Ofcom have also been discussing whether this is achievable and how this would affect commercial channels like UTV and TV3 who both share ITV network content, and both RTÉ and the BBC are in favour of some kind of agreement - but there would need to be an agreement on how the license fee for these channels in both jurisdiction will work in the future. This needs to be agreed now - but there isn't any visible progress from Minister Eamon Ryan and his DCENR colleagues. When the Minister says the new service will be "accessible to all", does he include northern viewers in that? As Tommy Gallagher MLA points out "There are whole areas of the north where RTE is in fact the primary television station of choice."
Also, and a point that the media is picking up on, since the Digital Terrestrial Television system for the Republic is being developed several years after the UK system, the Republic will start by broadcasting using MPEG4 (which can be used to broadcast High-Definition better quality TV). The UK broadcasts most channels using MPEG2 but there are plans to upgrade MPEG4 in the future. However, and this is the bit that will annoy people, most of the current digital TV receivers will be fitted with MPEG2 chipsets which won't be able to handle MPEG4 channels - so people will need to buy a new set top box. This will cost money, but if I knew RTÉ were broadcasting on Freeview in Belfast, I'd buy one tomorrow.