Getting Saorview in Northern Ireland

lawhec's picture

This article has been updated on February 2012 to update certain information and to remove stuff that is no longer relevant.

A large amount of people watch Freeview broadcasts in Northern Ireland at present, though there are still large pockets of no reception due to the low power of the transmissions & that they’re not carried on relays. This will cease to be the case on the 24th October when the analogue network will be closed & the digital multiplexes will be available on high power, while the relays will carry a "Freeview Lite" service.

Of course, RTÉ TV reception, and in recent years TV3 & TG4 has always been pivotal in terms of television viewing in many Northern Irish homes. Although seen as helping secure a cultural Irish Nationalist link to the north, reception where it is possible has always been taken up pretty well even in staunchly Unionist areas. Though the outlays for reception (large aerials, amplifier & combiners etc.) have put this as a premium compared to just having BBC, UTV & Channel 4 in most places.

With this in mind, such viewers who have moved on from analogue to Freeview have had to fall back to analogue to watch southern television broadcasts for some time now until RTÉNL started rolling out DTT around 2009 beyond Dublin, Louth & Meath. Though the first results were more likely to confuse people, as most people couldn’t watch the broadcasts but could hear them! This is down to using a different video coding standard compared to Freeview, MPEG2 for Freeview while Saorview uses MPEG4. MPEG4 is more modern and compresses video better than MPEG2 giving more channels for the same digital broadcast space and set up. Incidentally, the Freeview HD service also uses MPEG4. MPEG4 is also backwards compatible with MPEG2.

Now, leaving aside all this, time to cut to the chase and to do some Q & A examples that should hopefully cover most situations in the north…

Q. I currently receive RTÉ1, RTÉ2, TV3 and TG4 on analogue. On my Freeview TV, I can pick up all their digital versions including RTÉ2, and also four other channels called "RTÉ News Now", "RTÉ1 +1", "RTÉ Jr"  & "3E". There are also a number of radio stations including some called "RTÉ Gold", "RTE2XM" etc. All of these channels begin at channel 800.

A. The good news is that it looks like you are set up to receive Saorview services as of right now! "RTÉ Two" should trigger the showing of a HD symbol or flag on the on screen display or the receiver. If this is the case, then you’re pretty much sorted for both Freeview and Saorview. You might be able to move them from channels starting at 800 depending on the software of your receiver, check your receiver manual to see how this might be done.

Solution: None required here, but if you want to view the Saorview service on other televisions around the house, ensure that the receiver being used, be it TV or set top box, has a “Freeview HD” logo. Failing that, some TV's marked as being "Freeview" compatible only may still be able to display Saorview broadcasts - check your receiver specifications.

Q. I currently receive RTÉ1, RTÉ2, TV3 and TG4 on analogue. When retuning my Freeview TV, I can pick up all their digital versions, along with "RTÉ News Now", "RTÉ1 +1", "RTÉ Jr", "3E" & several radio stations. However I can get no picture on "RTÉ Two".

A. Your TV or set top box is MPEG4 compatible, but it is not HD compatible. RTÉ Two is broadcast in HD on a full time basis (in 1080i format, some material is broadcast natively while others are broadcast "upscaled") and receivers that cannot handle HD video will just display a blank screen and maybe a message also like “incompatible format”. You may still get sound and text services. There are a few such receivers about that comes with this problem, but these receivers are unlikely to be found in most reputable outlets, if in doubt ask the seller to reassure you that it can display RTÉ2 and ask for a demonstration if possible.

Solution: The long-term solution will be to either replace the set top box with one that is either Saorview or Freeview HD approved, or if the tuner is built in to your TV, attaching a Saorview or Freeview HD approved set top box to it , or buy a new compatible TV. Freeview HD approved receivers are recommended as they will be able to display Freeview HD broadcasts when they commence in 2012, whereas Saorview receivers may not.

Q. I currently receive RTÉ1, RTÉ2, TV3 & TG4 on analogue. On my Freeview TV, I can only get the RTÉ radio stations. Also if the TV stations appear, they all have a blank screen though I can hear the sound.

A. Your receiver can handle MPEG2 video only. It cannot handle MPEG4 video. Most "Freeview" (not "Freeview HD") receivers are like this, even TV's with built in digital tuners that are labelled "HD Ready". The RTÉ radio stations on Saorview currently broadcast using MP2 audio, the same as Freeview, which is why you can listen to them (though this may change in the future to AAC+). If no TV stations appear, it is likely because they are flagged in the Saorview transmission as being incompatible with non-Freeview HD receivers, and they ignore them. On some receivers they might appear listed as radio services.

Solution: To watch Saorview, you could either replace your current TV with one that is Saorview or Freeview HD approved, or you could add a set top box to it to watch Saorview and future Freeview HD channels; in this case a Freeview HD approved set top box is recommended. If you are already using a set top box in this case, it will need to be replaced with a Saorview or Freeview HD (recommended) approved set top box to receive Saorview and/or future Freeview HD services.

Q. I currently receive RTÉ1, RTÉ2, TV3 and TG4 on analogue in good quality. However, when I try scanning my Freeview receiver for these channels, I can’t pick them up! My main Freeview stations come in fine.

A. This is likely to affect viewers east of the Bann, though it also affects some viewers also in places like South Co. Derry, East Co. Tyrone and parts of Co. Armagh. This is because the main RTÉ transmitter serving this area is based at Clermont Carn in Co. Louth. The digital TV transmitting aerial used at this site is different to that used for analogue TV, and is directing most of its power south and west of the site and little to its north. This means in areas north of Clermont Carn, viewers in a few places may pick up the Saorview transmissions but everyone else will not.

Solution: Nothing to say except to sit tight until 24th October, I'm afraid. In certain weather conditions, Saorview channels may come in temporarily but until the analogue TV services are switched off at Clermont Carn, digital TV reception north of the site will be patchy. At the switch over date, analogue transmissions will be replaced with digital, coverage will therefore improve in particular to the north, and most people who currently have analogue reception from Clermont Carn should end up with Saorview coverage. In a few places, an aerial at an alternative transmitter could be an option, or Saorsat when it becomes available. If you are fortunate enough to receive Saorview from Clermont Carn, you will be required to do a retune on 24th October alongside any retuning for Freeview services on this date.

Q. I currently receive RTÉ1 and RTÉ2 on analogue, but no (or poor) TV3 and TG4. Scanning my Freeview receiver for digital versions of these channels doesn’t bring them in. In most cases, the normal Freeview channels come in fine.

A. This is a likely problem for people receiving from either the Monaghan relay (mainly in Armagh city and areas of the county west of it) or the Truskmore transmitter (which covers parts of Co. Tyrone, Co. Fermanagh and small parts of Co. Derry), where they can receive RTÉ1 and RTÉ2 via VHF, but have no UHF aerial pointing in the same direction for TV3 (Truskmore only) or TG4.

Solution: If an installer has not been around before to check reception conditions for TV3/TG4, a UHF aerial will be required to receive Saorview, which is currently transmitting from Truskmore and planned for Monaghan. The same aerial will also bring in TV3 (Truskmore only) and TG4 in analogue until these are eventually switched off. In a few cases, previously an installer may have deemed VHF reception of RTÉ1 and RTÉ2 OK, but UHF reception from the same site poor and only fitted in a VHF aerial. The Saorview signal however can tolerate lower signal levels than analogue, and the fitting of a UHF aerial aimed at the same site as RTÉ1 and RTÉ2 on VHF may bring Saorview signals in even if TV3 and/or TG4 analogue pictures are quite poor. Also, in the case of Truskmore, you may not currently have Freeview services because your aerial is aimed at a relay currently not carrying it which requires a Group C/D or E aerial. Relays that use this part of the band include, in Tyrone, Plumbridge & Castlederg, while in Fermanagh, Ederney, Lisbellaw & Derrygonnelly. It's possible other areas may also be affected. Truskmore uses Group C/D for UHF transmissions, which makes integrating with northern services more difficult than normal with these relays, and most domestic aerial installers don’t deal with it. A solution may be to get your BBC/UTV/CH4 reception from a different transmitter if this is possible (likely Strabane or Brougher Mountain, the latter may also bring you in some Freeview services as well for now) which transmits in the Group A or B part of the UHF band, leaving Group C/D free to receive Truskmore and Saorview. It may also be possible to receive Saorview from another RTÉ transmitter instead of Truskmore in some of these places, in particular Holywell Hill (in areas north or Omagh) and Carin Hill (in Omagh, parts of south-western Tyrone, Clogher Valley and also in Fermanagh including Enniskillen and areas to its south or east of the town e.g. Lisnaskea, Newtownbutler, Roslea etc.)

Q. I live in an area where terrestrial reception of RTÉ is very poor or non-existent. Currently I subscribe to Sky or Virgin Media to watch RTÉ1, RTÉ2 and TG4. Will Saorview allow me to watch it for free and ditch the subscription?

A. That can not be answered with a blanket statement. There may be a few places that could pick up Saorview transmissions where RTÉ analogue was not possible previously. But don’t get your hopes up. A more reliable solution to this could be Saorsat which at the time of writing only carries RTÉ's channels at present and which has not yet officially launched. There are also plans to have a mini-multiplex based at three sites in Northern Ireland which will carry RTÉ1, RTÉ2 and TG4 in standard definition for which their their technical specifications have yet to be finalised but should be available to many viewers where traditionally RTÉ terrestrial reception has been poor or non-existent.

In all cases, for viewers in Northern Ireland it’s recommended that any new Freeview equipment that is bought from now should be “Freeview HD” compatible as this will not only receive current Freeview transmissions, but it will also display the Freeview HD channels that will become available during 2012 and display Saorview services for viewers with appropriate aerials installed where it can be received. A Saorview approved receiver will cover Saorview and Freeview channels but will not receive future Freeview HD channels unless the tuner in the Saorview equipment is DVB-T2 compatible.

Freeview HD set top boxes are now available at retail outlets (as of February 2012) for around two times the price of a good ordinary, non-HD Freeview STB while televisions with Freeview HD can be bought for around about 1.5 times the same price as roughly the same screen size & brand with a Freeview receiver only. Always ensure there that the television is labelled as "Freeview HD" compatible and not just "HD Ready" or "Full HD". If you want PVR functionality similar to that like Sky+, Freeview HD+ receivers are available in places like Argos, Currys and online shops starting at around £150, though again, make sure they are "Freeview HD+" and not "Freeview+".