Cable television in the Republic of Ireland

Cable television in the Republic of Ireland is the most common system for distributing multi-channel television in the state. With a 40+ year history and extensive networks of both wired and "wireless" cable, the Republic of Ireland is amongst the most cabled countries in Europe.

History

Cable first started in the 1960s, when several companies, including state broadcaster RTÉ, started re-broadcasting the UK's (then) three terrestrial TV channels in some cities and larger towns.

The first major City outside Dublin to build a purpose-built Cable TV network under the new 1974 regulations was Waterford, which initially delivered service to some 6,000 homes in 1974. It now supplies an analogue service to an estimated 14 - 16,000 homes in Waterford City, along with almost 5,000 cable broadband customers, and is now commencing VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephony services.

Other cities followed suit, but not until the 1980s. First Cork, then Galway and finally Limerick were cabled. However, due to draconian legislation regarding the use of microwave links at the time, companies were forced to lay untold miles of cable to get from the Headend (exchange) to the City.

The cable connecting Cork to the Comeragh Mountains was sixty miles in total; the longest cable TV route ever built in Europe. Casey Cablevision of Dungarvan, County Waterford held the Irish record previously, with a sixteen mile-long connecting to the Comeragh Mountains headend. The Cork cable TV operator had initially built a head-end in the Knockmealdown mountains but reception there was less than satisfactory and a deal was done after a few months in 1982 to use Casey Cablevision's headend.

The majority of major cable systems in Ireland now use a mix of both microwave links and satellite, along with various Fibre-optic feeds.

Effectively CATV systems, those owned commercially generally began adding additional services in the early 1980s as English-language services started to appear on satellite, and with most new houses cabled from construction by the late 1980s, it has become the most common multi-channel television reception system, beating satellite television and long-distance UHF reception of foreign channels in to second and third places.

While "cable" television generally refers to services provided by cables, as the name might suggest, legally MMDS television distribution systems, which are widespread in rural Ireland, are classified as cable television. MMDS propagation began in 1989, with the network of 29 cells forming a "national grid" being regulated for, if not intact by 1998.

Technology

Analogue cable television in Ireland generally operates by providing unencrypted System I PAL television channels in Band I, Band III, Hyperband and possible Band IV, depending on area. Premium services may be provided scrambled, with most providers using Jerrold or General Instrument decoders for this purpose. Beyond premium services, set top boxes are only provided if the customers television is unable to handle VHF signals, as some imported from the UK (which has no VHF television and generally encrypted cable television may). However, in Cork the analogue cable network was entirely encrypted since the late 1980s and a Jerrold set-top box was required for access to almost all channels. There is no set frequency plan. Most cable networks (for analogue) use Harmonically Related Carriers (carrier frequencies of exact 8MHz multiples). However some cable networks (such as Limerick) use Irish terrestrial channel alignments or even a mixture of the two channel plans.

Digital cable operates using DVB-C, although encryption, as well as other platform details varies by provider. Certain channels may be unencrypted, such as EuroNews or Channel 6 which are unencrypted on NTL. Digital MMDS uses a DVB-C variant on ex NTL MMDS and a variant of DVB-T on ex Chorus MMDS networks.

Smaller, older networks are usually, for analogue, standard coaxial cables boosted and tapped at regular intervals, which can lead to serious signal degradation problems, particularly on overhead networks. Digital networks have far more sophisticated trunking systems. The five main Cities (Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick,and Waterford), along with towns like Dungarvan, Clonmel, Kilkenny etc now enjoy state of the art Fibre optic-driven networks which are used to deliver a myriad of services, including analogue and digital TV, broadband, and VoIP phones.

Overhead cables are common in areas constructed before the foundation of the local cable firm, or where the cable firm did not have a construction agreement with the builders; underground cables are more common in developments build post-1985.

Analogue MMDS specifications were legally set in 1998 by the then Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation in the document "Technical conditions for the operation of analogue programme services distribution systems in the frequency band 2500-2686 MHz"

Regulation

Early cable television operated in an unregulated grey market, with providers laying cables wherever possible from their signal collection point, often the local electrical store. The system was eventually regulated by the Wireless Telegraphy (Wired Broadcast Relay Licence) Regulations of 1974 in to an exclusive franchise system, where one company holds a franchise to provider analogue cable television and radio services to a specific area. Franchisers under this system are referred to as having "1974 licences"

Further now obsolete modifications to the Wireless Telegraphy act allowed for the start of MMDS in 1989.

The major revision of the legislation, Wireless Telegraphy (Programme Services Distribution) Regulations of 1999, brought in a new class of licence. This introduced the concept of non-exclusive franchises, which had existed in theory with competing cable and MMDS firms in certain areas, and allowed for the introduction of digital cable and MMDS transmission.

Cable companies are obliged to carry national terrestrial television and RTÉ radio by both acts, although analogue MMDS operators are exempted from carrying all but TV3 of these.

Providers & availability

40% [ [http://www.comreg.ie/publications/default.asp?S=&NavID=&ctype=5&NID=102445 Commission for Communications Regulation] ] of Irish homes received cable television in September 2006. The figure dropped slightly in the early years of the 21st century due to the increased popularity of satellite reception. notably Sky, but has stabilised recently.

Three providers are licensed for digital wired cable operation. They are NTL Ireland, licensed for Dublin city including Leixlip, County Kildare and Bray, County Wicklow, Waterford City and Galway City; Casey Cablevision, licensed for Dungarvan; and Chorus Communications, licensed for Arklow, Ashbourne, Athlone, Athy, Ballina, Buncrana, Cappoquin, Carlow, Cashel, Castlebar (inactive), Celbridge, Clonmel, Cork, Donegal, Dundrum, Ennis, Enniscorthy, Greystones, Kildare, Kilkenny, Limerick, Lismore, Malahide, Maynooth, Mullingar, Naas, Navan, Nenagh, New Ross, Newbridge, Portarlington, Portlaoise, Shannon, Sligo, Swords, Thurles, Tipperary, Tullamore, Tullow and Wicklow. Both these providers are part of UPC Ireland.

Two providers are licensed for MMDS operations, NTL for counties Dublin, Galway, Mayo and Waterford; and Chorus, who are licensed for the rest of the country.

7 providers remain on 1974 licences. These are Bagenalstown Community Television Society in Bagenalstown, Berney Crossan & Sons in Longford town, Clane Cable Systems in Clane, Emmet Electrical in Boyle, Orlynn Park Amenities in Lusk, Smyths AV Systems in Cavan town, and Tara Cove Holidays in Ballymoney and Wexford town. UPC Ireland has made an offer to purchase Clane Cable Systems.

Provider consolidation

Early Irish CATV companies included the Rank Organisation owned Ren-Tel Cablevision, Phoenix Relays, Marlin Communal Aerials and RTÉ Relays.

Rank sold Ren-Tel Cablevision to Marlin Communal Aerials in 1975, and later Marlin and Phoenix would merge to form Dublin Cablesystems. Later still, Dublin Cablesystems and RTÉ Relays would merge to form Cablelink.

By the early 1990s, the system owned by RTÉ and the state telephone operator Telecom Éireann (now eircom), Cablelink, held the franchises for Dublin (with some intrusion in to Counties Kildare and Wicklow), Waterford and Galway cities, with Cork's Irish Multichannel being the only other large provider in the country. Both these services became franchise holders for the new MMDS system in 1989. MMDS and cable franchises do not coincide, with both Cablelink and Irish Multichannel having provided MMDS service in areas with pre-existing independent cable firms.

The majority of the smaller cable companies, licensed exclusively to their geographic area under 1974 licences, slowly merged in to Cable Management Ireland, with some notable exceptions. Irish Multichannel merged with Cable Management Ireland in 2000, becoming Chorus Communications.

Cablelink was sold to NTL in 1999, and renamed NTL Ireland. On 9 May 2005, the business was sold for 325 million to MS Irish Cable Holdings BV, an affiliate of Morgan Stanley. Morgan Stanley enacted this purchase on the behalf of Liberty Global Europe, the owners of Chorus, and following regulatory clearance, Liberty Global took control of NTL, leaving them with a monopoly on MMDS in Ireland, and the majority of cable franchises. The companies currently operate as separate firms, under 1999 licences, and while franchise exclusivity under 1999 licences forbids them only from operating services in areas with 1974 licence, at no stage do both companies offer the same service, be it wired or wireless, in one area.

A small number of other cable providers exist, usually serving a single town. Casey Cablevision in Dungarvan is the only of these to have moved to a digital network, and is the only one with a 1999 licence, with the remaining systems often being little more than a community antenna system. However, Benny Crossan in Longford, a 1974 licensee, provides fibre-optical Internet connections alongside analogue cable.

Deflectors

In rural areas where neither cable or MMDS are available, there have been 'deflectors', which pick up the UK terrestrial channels (either from Northern Ireland or Wales), and retransmit them on local UHF signals along with other channels. These operators faced legal action in the late 1990s from MMDS operators, as they did not pay royalties to the relevant broadcasters, and were not licensed. When the deflectors were shut down, there was such an outcry in those areas that an independent candidate in County Donegal, Tom Gildea, was elected as a TD on a platform of supporting legalisation, which occurred in 1999. Officially, the legislation legalising deflectors, the Wireless Telegraphy (UHF Television Programme Retransmission) Regulations of 1999, expired in 2001, but most systems still operate and licences were not revoked. This legislation leaves them similarly licensed to analogue MMDS operators, with the right to operate four channels, unencrypted.

References


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