RTÉ in Northern Ireland - as it stands, as it should progress and for the future

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Anyone buying a copy of the Belfast-based Irish News this morning will see the headline on the front page “RTE digital coming north”, with the article below it featuring the grins of Joe Brolly and Ryan Turbity. Two further pages inside the paper gives more to this story, though half of it contains a picture of a 10-element contract aerial.

The main event behind the story is that the Irish News has “learned” that RTÉ1, RTÉ2 and TG4 will be available on the Freeview platform in Northern Ireland by the time the digital switch over occurs here, though some rights to programming (e.g. sports) will be blocked the same way as viewers to those channels on Sky or Virgin are being done so right now. It says an announcement is expected to be made soon which will also include the BBC being given “greater” access in the Republic too.

Reading through it, it becomes clear that there is no official statement behind this claim of RTÉ & TG4 broadcasting north of the border. It doesn’t say how this will be achieved, what areas it will cover etc. Basically there’s not a lot about it other than a rehash of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by both the Irish and British governments earlier this year. That and a mention of the Saorview system currently in place and being built up with an anonymous Tyrone man claiming that his TV3 reception is now “crystal clear”.

So what is actually happening?

Well, right now viewers in some parts of Northern Ireland can receive Saorview digital terrestrial TV broadcasts from across the border. Indeed in some places, you can get Saorview but not Freeview. However, if you are getting good RTÉ analogue pictures but nothing for Saorview reception, that doesn’t mean you’ll never get Saorview.

Currently Saorview is being rolled out across Ireland (Republic), with all of the main transmitters up and running albeit with some directional restrictions (particularly the Clermont Carn transmitter in Co. Louth, which serves large swathes of counties Armagh, Down, South Antrim, South Derry and East Tyrone) compared to analogue broadcasts on the same masts, and power restrictions as well though they are not as low powered as present Freeview transmissions that will be upgraded in 2012.

The blog post after this, “Getting Saorview in Northern Ireland” explains what can be done and what you’ll need.

From no later than (hopefully) 2013, Saorview will be on full power into Northern Ireland, though of course it won’t cover everyone. In this case, the “lite” service of RTÉ1, RTÉ2 & TG4 may be available to them, another option should be Saorsat once it is launched. However, if you get a half-decent picture on TG4* then the Saorview services should eventually once all analogue services are turned off come in alongside northern Freeview broadcasts. And if what the Irish News report is true, joint north/south reception of services will still be valuable as the Northern Irish transmitter sites won’t carry TV3 or other off-shoot channels currently available on Saorview.

My advice – if you can currently receive digital terrestrial services from both sides of the border, you’ll be better off keeping that going as the full Saorview service is unlikely to be made available using transmitters north of the border.

*Note - if you're currently receiving TG4 from the low-powered relay in Belfast on Divis Mountain, this is an exception. However when this is switched off in 2012, it may be replaced with a digital version, subject to agreement by the UK & Irish governments. Also there is uncertainty if Moville will carry the Saorview service too, which may affect some viewers on the north coast.