With great variety comes great confusion - and great expense, if you don’t choose wisely. Switching to a cheaper TV and broadband provider could save you €300 a year - writes Conor Pope Consumer Affairs Correspondent
Watching television used to be simple. Not all that long ago, most Irish people - at least those who lived beyond the Pale - had a single channel and a solitary provider, which only started broadcasting at 4pm and shut down shortly before midnight.
There was slightly more choice for people who had what was quaintly known as “piped television”, which gave them access to three more channels.
Then, in the late 1970s, a second RTE channel was added to the mix, after which multichannel came to town and satellites started beaming channels such as Super (remember that?) into our houses.
Today many Irish homes have more than 100 channels to choose from, and the traditional providers have been joined by upstarts from the telecoms sector. Streaming services and easily downloaded content have joined the terrestrial and extraterrestrial providers to give us viewing options that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago.
Of course, all these 21st-century television options would be quite useless - or at least much more limited - without good-quality broadband. And although the quality of internet - at least in parts of the country is good, the need for a broadband package to work in tandem with your television adds a layer of complexity to the choices the public has to make.
And we should not forget the hundreds of thousands of people who are denied access to services such as Netflix because the State and the private operators have been so slow to roll out reliable broadband across rural Ireland.
With great variety comes great confusion and great expense, if you choose unwisely. In fact, staying with a high-cost television and broadband provider as opposed to switching to a cheaper alternative could easily cost you €300 a year.
When making a choice, the first thing you need to think about is your viewing habits. Having all the channels might seem wise, but if you are not watching them, you are wasting money.
Pricewatch carried out a Twitter poll early last week, asking users how many channels they watched in any given week. More than 70 per cent of respondents said they watched between one and 10 channels, and a further 15 per cent said they only streamed content. Just 6 per cent said they watched more than 10 channels in any given week. The rest claimed not to watch any television. If many of us watch only a small number of channels, why are we signing up for services that offer hundreds of them?
Vodafone is the newest television supplier in the mainstream market, and it seems to think that Irish viewers do not want to be swamped with hundreds of channels and would prefer a smaller number, as well as easy access to streaming. Late last month the company announced plans to sell a basic, 55-channel TV package to its home broadband customers.
It seems like a good deal and has some novel features that other companies do not offer. Included among those is a bespoke remote control that comes with a Netflix button. This will give those who do not yet have televisions hooked up to the internet easier access to the streaming service. Users who already have Netflix accounts will also be able to log in directly using their remote.
The deal will also allow users to scroll back through up to seven days’ worth of programmes on the Vodafone electronic programme guide and to go back to the beginning of a programme that has already started.
The Virgin Media platform recently added these services too, and they are likely to become commonplace across all providers in the months ahead.
Perhaps the most attractive thing about the new deal from Vodafone is the price. There are two different packages on offer. The cheapest will cost €70 a month and give viewers access to 55 channels, plus either Netflix or BT Sport. Its TV Plus bundle costs €80 comes with 80 channels and two of either multiroom, Netflix or BT Sport.
Both options have a six-month introductory price of €40 a month and are subject to an 18-month contract. If you go for the basic offering you will spend €1,080 over the course of the next 18 months on your television and broadband.
To put that price into context, new Virgin Media customers who do not have any premium channels pay €85 a month for TV and broadband. This means they will spend €1,529.82 over the next 18 months, or €449.82 more than if they switched to Vodafone.
To be fair to Virgin, it does offer introductory discounts to its new customers(but not existing ones) and its advertised broadband speeds are faster than the competition, at least for now.
An even cheaper TV-only alternative is the RTE-owned television service Saorview, which will get more advanced - and more attractive - in the months ahead.
Under a deal announced a couple of weeks ago, Saorview will be available via a broadband-connected set-top box later this year, as part of a new partnership with UK television platform Freesat.
The new Saorview Connect service will make on-demand content available alongside the nine Saorview channels. Its set-top boxes will have greater functionality than the current generation of Saorview boxes and will bring the service more in line with pay-TV platforms.
The new features will include a facility to catch up on missed programmes by scrolling back through the electronic programme guide, as well as a remote recording function.
The Saorview Connect service “will offer viewers a richer experience”, according to RTF director-general Noel Curran. And there are a lot of such viewers. Forty-three per cent of households with television sets or about 676,000 homes have Saorview.
Pat O’Mahony, who works in television and radio, recently followed a path that will save him hundreds of euro this year and even more next year. “I moved apartment late last year, so was effectively starting from scratch when it came to television and broadband,” he says. “All I had was the television [set]. When I arrived in my new apartment there was a Saorview box and an aerial, and it worked fine. But it only had the standard channels on it.”
So he went to satellite.ie and bought what is known as a combi box for €95 (including delivery). Once hooked up to a satellite dish, the box offers all the free-to-air channels in Ireland and the UK and farther afield. His apartment block had a group satellite dish on the roof, which was mostly used by Sky customers. He paid a one-off €50 charge to have it hooked up to his combi box, which took the total cost of the TV service to€145. But that is a one-off fee for as long as he is in the apartment.
“I don’t have the sports or BBC channels, or the movie channels, but I have more than enough.”
For broadband he went to bonkers.ie to find out where the deals were. “I went with a crowd called Pure Telecom. I get all the broadband I need for €37 a month. It just made sense. Maybe it wouldn’t work for someone who is a heavy TV viewer, someone who wants to watch the movies and the sports, but it made sense for me.”
The numbers stack up. When the one-off payment of €145 for his television service is added to the annual cost of his broadband, he will spend €811 over the next 18 months, compared with the €1,530 a Virgin customer will pay. Looking further into the future, the annual cost of all his TV and broadband needs will be €444.
The streaming situation A legal grey area?
Another option is controversial. In a Pricewatch Twitter poll, 15 per cent of respondents said they streamed content rather than watching it on regular television. Some of those people will be using Netflix. Others will be using other methods. There are a growing number of providers of Android boxes that plug in to a television set and allow users to stream content directly from the internet to their TV.
It sounds seductive. Almost any movie you can think of and almost every television programme, as well as live sports, can be accessed from such services. You can buy such a box form less than €100 on amazon.co.uk, and Irish-based sellers have them on offer from about €125. You basically fool your television into thinking it is an Android device. The content is not downloaded or stored.
Some websites address the legality of such a service. “A recent EU ruling confirmed that streaming is legal even if the content is copyrighted,” one Irish site says. “As long as an internet user is streaming copyrighted content online, then it's legal for the user, who isn’t wilfully making a copy of said content. If the user only views it directly through a web browser, streaming it from a website that hosts it, he or she is doing nothing wrong.” The media players sold on this site "do not download, copy or store media, which would be illegal. They simply facilitate streaming of media content, which is legal."
However, a number of legal experts and people familiar with the area of content control online told us that the streaming of material under strict copyrights legally dodgy.
Those who are streaming content via Android boxes do not have licences from the companies that own the copyright, which puts such services on shaky ground. Having said that, the legality of the streaming world is up in the air because a number of key decisions are pending from the European Court of Justice. Because rulings could take a long time to come, it would be difficult for any company to take a successful action against streamers, but precedents might suggest that when the rulings arrive they will come down hard on those who are making this content available. If that happens, the streams might dry up.