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OnDigital – TV's secret service

Blood from a stone situation on the information front

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The British government plans to switch off analog TV transmitters by 2010, by which time 100 per cent of the population should be able to receive digital terrestrial broadcasts. In order to achieve this goal, OnDigital - the company that is digital terrestrial in the UK - has to attract viewers to make the switch from analog to digital. One of the ways by which people are attracted to new technology has traditionally been to supply them with all the information needed to make a sensible purchasing decision. OnDigital takes a somewhat different approach and makes it almost impossible for users to find out what the Hell's going on. OnDigital is the trading name of British Digital Broadcasting PLC - which is owned by Carlton and Granada. Satellite broadcaster BSkyB used to own part of BDB, until it was forced to sell by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Sign up for the OnDigital service and they'll send you a free set top box (STB) that you simply plug in to your aerial and TV. For around £10 a month that gives you all the free-to-air channels from the BBC and ITV. To receive all the channels currently being broadcast (40+), it'll cost just over £40. There is also the capability to send and receive email via the TV, but this needs a phone connection. The first problem you may encounter is which set-top box you are sent, because some are more equal than others. The first STBs came from Philips, followed by Pace, Nokia, Toshiba and Sony. For reasons which aren't immediately obvious, all these manufacturers have taken a different design approach meaning the firmware needed to make them work is different in each case. The firmware can be automatically updated by downloading it via the airwaves. Philips STBs got a firmware update last Autumn enabling them to display digital text. Pace owners got text a few weeks ago, but Nokia boxes still cannot display either the BBC's or ITV's dedicated digital text channels or the text broadcast alongside BBC Knowledge. What this means in effect is that if you have a Nokia box, you receive two fewer channels than a Philips owner, yet pay the same for the service. There is no information on the OnDigital Web site to tell you what the differences between the STBs is; there is no information about when firmware updates will be available; there is no email request for information; there isn't even a phone number. With the deepest respect The only source of information comes in the shape of internet forums like Diginews which are filled with posts from bemused users asking if anyone can tell them what's happening in terms of when new channels are coming online, when new games will be available (a long running saga, that one) and why digital text still doesn't work. Some enterprising users have even tried to get OnDigital to swap their Nokia STBs for Philips ones in a bid to get access to all the channels they were paying for. Calls to the OnDigital call centre are seldom a rewarding experience unless you enjoy listening to music on hold. When you finally get through, the chances of receiving any useful information are slim. I spent over 30 minutes trying to elicit a date for the arrival of text on Nokia STBs and the eventual reply was "By the end of this month, or maybe the end of May." Technical support was little better, prefacing each reply with "With the deepest respect..." - a phrase I have always understood to mean 'Why don't you shut up and stop bothering me?' Incidentally, I will not be holding my breath for the arrival of the text update - this is the third "definite" date I've seen in the last six months. On the plus side, digital terrestrial does give excellent sound and picture quality, eight times as many channels as analog and you don't need a tacky satellite dish bolted to your house. But OnDigital seems to be doing its best to put people off moving from analog by a complete lack of communication. OnDigital has an elegant way of upgrading software at its disposal - and being via broadcast - it's completely free to users. Some STBs even automatically search for updated firmware and download it without any user intervention (Not the Nokia ones, obviously). What does OnDigital do? It sends a letter by snailmail telling users to do an update. What IT company would send a letter to its users telling them a new version of its software was available for download from the Web? The company's argument is that it doesn't want to release software before it's been tested, but if the posts on Diginews are anything to go by, the software on Philips and Pace STBs falls over quite frequently. In the meantime, this Nokia owner at least would prefer to receive a full service for their money even if it only worked 90 per cent of the time. ®

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