May 23, 2017

Horse 2275 - Do Not Go Gentle Into That Digital Night

Last week, Mrs Rollo and I went to Port Stephens to do not very much, and I have to say that it was absolutely glorious. Port Stephens isn't exactly the most rural of places, what with a McDonald's at the end of the road, and the RAAF not very far away. I'd say that where we stayed in Lemon Tree Passage, was probably closer to the centre of Newcastle in a straight line, than our house in Western Sydney is to the centre of Sydney. Yet even if this is true, I found that the television reception was rubbish and that a picture was coming in only about half of the time. At home in Western Sydney, television reception is just as bad and we've found that online services such as ABC's iView and SBS OnDemand have been invaluable in being able to watch something which we could have already seen it it wasn't for the fact that it wasn't coming in because television reception is rubbish.

Herein lies one of the great disappointments of digital broadcasting. Due to the nature of the beast, that digital television is sent at higher frequencies and that the information contained is far greater, a break in reception doesn't result in fuzziness like old analogue television did, but complete loss of picture and continuity. One of the great technical limitations of digital broadcasting is that you need a direct line of sight to the transmission tower and that can be interrupted by something as simple as a hill of a raindrop in the way; if there happens to be a storm somewhere between you and the tower, which in our case is more than 35km away, or you happen to be unfortunate enough to live in a valley which is also true in our case, then digital television is mostly a complete failure.

This isn't the case for analogue broadcasting. On a cloudy day, even with a cheap quality radio, it is possible to pick up 4BC from Brisbane, 774 ABC Melbourne, 5AA from Adelaide, or perhaps NZFM which I assume is coming from Auckland. AM Radio with its longer wavelengths in particular, was able to exploit this fact brilliantly, when in the days before commercial radio was allowed in the UK, pirate radio stations broadcasted from ships which were outside the statutory limit, and Radio Luxembourg's​ biggest audience was the UK.

To stop the technical problems with analogue radio, the national radio networks like the BBC were allocated blocks of broadcasting frequencies, such as Radio 1 taking up the space between 97-99 FM and Radio 4 from 92-94 FM. In time, when RDS or the Radio Data Service was broadcast alongside the radio content itself, car radios could find a frequency and then automatically retune themselves if they found another stronger frequency. The thing is that there are lots of towns and cities in the UK, so when digital broadcasting came along, digital television already had loads of towers that they could use and digital radios could use a similar system to retune themselves to find the nearest and or strongest signal.
Australia though, isn't the UK.
Australia is a vast unwieldy place where distances aren't measured in kilometres but hours and days. Digital broadcasting from dinky little towers just doesn't work for the vast majority of the country; that explains why I got rubbish reception in Port Stephens and why in the middle of Western Sydney, why I just happen to live in a hole where trying to receive digital broadcast signals is mostly a waste of time.

This is why I hope that the Federal Government decides to dither as long as possible when it comes to finally making the decision to switch off analogue broadcasting in Australia. Digital television already proves itself to be useless in a lot of places. Rather to be more accurate, the system would work perfectly fine if it had been implemented as it had been done in the UK where there are lots of repeater towers but because it is broadcasters themselves who own their towers, there is no economic incentive to do so. A city as big as Sydney needs as few as seven sets of broadcasting towers but we only have the big stacks in the eastern suburbs and a few regional towers which surround the greater metropolitan area.
If radio makes the switch to digital only, then massive areas of the country will be plunged into broadcasting darkness and eventually​ within the cities, if you happen to be unlucky enough to live in a valley, or behind a big hill, or perhaps a brand new block of flats, then you can kiss radio goodbye as well.

I have mostly gotten used to the fact that I can't watch the ABC, SBS, Channel 9, or 10 at all, and only get Channel 7 some of the time but if the radio also goes digital only and doesn't work most of the time as well, I will not only be annoyed but annoyed in glorious digital stereo silence.

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