The formats are confusing and the standards don't seem to be standard. Our simple guide unravels the mysteries of Australian digital TV.
Australia's first "free to view" digital television broadcasts began in January 2001. The roll-out has been gradual, but now all five free-to-air broadcasters (ABC, SBS, Ten, Seven and Nine) are transmitting their digital television services in all capital cities — Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Canberra and Darwin — 24 hours a day/7 days a week. The emphasis now is on expanding the coverage and content across the country, with over 20 major regional markets receiving at least some digital programming.
According to the original law, they must simulcast (ie, broadcast both analog and digital signals) for at least eight years in an area, so if you lived in any of the cities named above, you would be able to use your current analog television set to receive free to air broadcasts until the end of 2013. The deadline for the analog switch off was originally set for the end of 2008.
According to the industry body Free TV, over 90 per cent of Australians have access to digital television. However, it estimates that only 40 per cent of people currently watch it. To access these services, you will need to buy either a digital set-top box for your analog TV or invest in one of the growing number of integrated digital television sets on the market. Most TVs on the market today feature an on-board digital TV tuner, with high-definition tuners becoming increasingly common.
When the transition to digital is complete, our analog PAL system will be replaced by the DVB-T digital television standard, which was first developed in Europe. Note that again, our system will differ from the US, which is using the American-developed ATSC standard.
"Flavours" of digital broadcasts
The first thing to get your head around is that there are two types of digital TV transmissions, Standard Definition (SD) and High Definition (HD). We'll fill you in on the basics.
SD broadcasts provide widescreen picture with DVD equivalent picture quality. The resolution is 576i (576 horizontal lines interlaced). It is broadcast with MPEG digital stereo sound (similar to CD quality) although some programs may be enhanced with Dolby Pro Logic or Dolby Digital surround sound. This is the standard that is now available 24 hours a day and it's a marked improvement from the analog signal. Most analog sets are capable of displaying 576i when connected to a digital set-top box.
HD broadcasts also provide widescreen pictures, but they have an even sharper image with up to twice the horizontal and almost three times the vertical resolution of SD. Due to bandwidth restrictions, there has been some debate by the public broadcasters over what constitutes "high definition". Australia is one of the only countries in the world to consider a 576p image to be the minimum for HD. This means it is a "progressively scanned" version of the standard definition signal. SBS HD is broadcast in 576p, as is most of ABC HD — although Aunty now broadcasts some content in 720p.
As such, 720p is the universally accepted standard for a minimum HD picture resolution, and consists of a 1280x720 pixels at 50Hz progressive. The maximum resolution that the broadcasters transmit in is 1080i (1080 horizontal lines interlaced). Of course, this differs from the other HD standard 1080p. As flatscreens like LCDs are naturally progressive they won't display an "i" image anyway, but will instead convert it automatically to "p". The benefits of HD pictures are particularly noticeable on larger screen sets and when using projection equipment.
The catch, of course, is that HD broadcasts are available on far fewer programs. The Government has imposed HD programming quotas on each broadcaster of at least 1,040 hours annually (but only for mainland metropolitan areas). The current rules will stay in place until the switch-off of analog in 2013. High definition is also currently available in Darwin and regional areas of Tasmania, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales.
The good news is that imposed quotas are being exceeded — and in most cases doubled — so there is a wealth of HD content on offer in any given week. Some of the programs are "native" HD (produced in the format), while others have been "up-converted" from SD format. If this top-of-the-line picture quality is what you want, make sure before you buy a new big flat screen TV that both the set-top box and screen you buy are HD capable — look for the, or you will not be able to fully take advantage of the superior HD image. Expect too, that you will be paying a premium for full-HD equipment.
Standard definition-only equipment is becoming less popular, but there's no need to despair if you decide to invest in SD gear. The Federal Government requires broadcasters to provide a digital SD signal at all times, even when HD programs are being broadcast, so you'll always be able to receive a digital television service, even when the higher quality HD signal is being transmitted.
Multi-channeling and other benefits
In addition to the widescreen view and better pictures and sound, with digital TV you also have access to extra channels. In 2007, most broadcasters officially launched their HD channels, which are able to provide programming that differs from their "core service". Any broadcaster in a non-remote area is able to provide one HDTV multi-channel under rules set down by the Government.
SBS is broadcasting the World News Channel for 20 hours a day in a variety of languages, selected radio channels are available, and most broadcasters are providing program guide channels. The ABC also offers a digital-only channel, ABC2, which features programs not seen on the main channel.
More intriguing is what may evolve from Sydney's market trial of digital data-casting. In addition to extra news, weather, sport and shopping channels, useful community services are being broadcast. You can check out still shots of notorious traffic areas such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and surf-cam shots of the major beaches lets you see what surf conditions are like. There is also an audio feed from Parliament House in Canberra if you want to catch every minute of Question Time.
Austar, Foxtel Digital and Foxtel HD+
The three main Pay TV providers in Australia are Foxtel, Austar and Optus. However, through numerous content-sharing deals made over the years it is Foxtel which provides a lot of content to all three.
Foxtel Digital, the pay cable and satellite digital video broadcasting service, launched in 2004. This was followed by the introduction of the company's first DVR, the Foxtel iQ, in 2005. It's a digital recorder capable of recording two shows at once. Foxtel has retransmission agreements for cable and satellite with SBS (Australia-wide) and Nine (Eastern states only); for cable (not satellite) with the ABC; and Seven and Ten available on cable.
Earlier this year, Foxtel launched its HD+ service with the announcement of a new recorder, the, and five new channels of HD content. In addition to all of the digital commercial channels subscribers in the eastern states also receive all of the terrestrial HD channels as well.
Although AUSTAR runs a cable network in Darwin, it is predominantly a satellite digital TV provider. It has a coverage area of approximately 2.4 million homes — or one-third of the total homes — in regional and rural Australia.
In February 2008, AUSTAR launched MyStar, its personal digital recorder. While it is SD-only it also includes two digital tuners enabling it to receive free-to-air programming as well.