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Which free digital TV system will give me the most reliable reception?

This week I am going to look at the digital TV systems in use and look at why they do not work for everyone all the time - and what you can do about it. Today, we start with looking at the four systems.

Sometimes some digital TV system do not give you the programmes you expect.  Photograph: Shutterstock
Sometimes some digital TV system do not give you the programmes you expect. Photograph: Shutterstock
published on UK Free TV

How time flies! It was 12 years ago this week that Sky closed their analogue TV service, and it was five years ago that "digital switchover" started. It can be quite hard to remember the imperfections of analogue reception, as everyone now has crystal-clear digital TV.

All transmission systems (analogue or digital) have to deal with the real world. This means a range of weather and atmospheric conditions can cause reception problems. What can you do about it?

However, the binary "bits" that are translated into the moving pictures, stereo sound, on-screen TV listings, subtitles and interactive text services have to get themselves from the broadcaster to your TV set, still have to be transferred along the same airwaves as the old analogue services.

On feature of "digital television" is that is digital in both the sense of "being provided by computer technology" and "it works, or it doesn't".

There are four ways you can get digital TV into your home:

1. Using "Freeview", which is the name for the service that provides channels from tall transmitters based around the country. This system is often called "terrestrial" (relating to the earth) because the TV signals stay close to the ground. Almost every home in the UK has a rooftop aerial which picks up the signals and sends them down to the TV sets around the house.

2. Using satellites, which you will know by the names "Sky" or "Freesat". It is hard to fathom sometimes that the satellites are up in space, 22,236 miles above Africa in the Maiko National Park, Congo (not far from Rwanda). Satellite reception is no harder to set up than using an aerial, all you need is a small compact black disk mounted on a south-facing wall.

3. Cable TV, which is known as "Virgin Media" in the UK, offers an alternative reception system. The cable company provides a wire into your home that provides a range of services. This is connected to a box in the street, which connects onto what is called a "head end" in your town or city: a room full of equipment where the TV channels are provided and encoded.

4. You may know Internet TV as "BT Vision" or "TalkTalk TV", or you might use BBC iPlayer, or Sky Now. To watch TV this way, your equipment connects to the internet using whatever method is to hand: ADSL (sharing a phone line), wireless, mobile or cable-provided.

Part two tomorrow: how they work - most of the time.

Help with Freeview, aerials?
How do I get a test card with Freeview1
I would like to know if it is possible to receive UK terrestrial Freeview servic2
I have been told I would receive too much singal from my Freeview tansmitter as 3
Can my Freeview box receive more than one BBC and ITV region?4
Is it true that my 87 year old mother is entitled to a FREE upgrade when the ana5
In this section
Official aerial installers guide to the TV spectrum future1
High pressure causing channel loss through "Inversion"2
Digital Region Overlap3
Freeview reception has changed?4
Two frequency interference 5
Single frequency interference6

Thursday, 20 September 2018
Patricia Anne Pokora
12:40 AM

None of the TV stations are working on any of our televisions. this also happened last night at around the same time. at about 00.20hrs.

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Patricia Anne Pokora's 2 posts GB flag

10:20 AM

Patricia Anne Pokora:

To assist we really need you to provide your full post code so we can examine the expected reception conditions at your location. There are over 1100 transmitters around the UK, most will be wporking correctly but a few will have upgrade engineering works from time to time.

You should start by checking all your aerial cables and connections. If there are coaxial plug/sockets, unplug them and refit. DO NOT RETUNE.

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MikeP's 3,056 posts GB flag
Sunday, 15 December 2019
Frank Feely
3:35 PM

I am in Tayport Fife, since the Angus Transmitter retune in November our reception has been terrible, lost channels etc, for instance BBC and ITV breaking up and Horror channel missing

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Frank Feely's 1 post GB flag

5:19 PM

Frank Feely: You are likely using an older Grouped aerial which is not designed to receive the frequencies now in use at Angus. Give the Freeview Advice Line a call (see link below) - they can arrange for a replacement wideband aerial to be fitted, free of charge if you don't have satellite or cable.

Important changes to Freeview | Freeview

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StevensOnln1's 3,552 posts GB flag
Thursday, 18 June 2020
Gerald Taylor
12:08 PM

Their seems to be an Issue with Keighley transmitter. TV installers I am calling are telling me this and also say they cannot reach the French Parent company to report the issue. People in these areas incl myself can lose 30 channels for days. I have had TV guys to mu house only to find no issues here. There test equipment say the transmitter is at fault. This has been ongoing intermittently for months now.18 June 2020 ..BD14 6LN Can you help please......

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Gerald Taylor's 1 post GB flag
Gerald's: mapG's Freeview map terrainG's terrain plot wavesG's frequency data G's Freeview Detailed Coverage

4:43 PM

Gerald Taylor:

First to point out that both the Keighley and Keighley Town transmitters are currently listed by Freeview as on "Planned Engineering" with "Possible service interruptions". (As an aside I also noted that the Keighley transmitter has had a number of instances of essential engineering and some faults in recent months!). Also note that this is a "Light" transmitter with only the 3 main PSB multiplexes.
To see which channels are carried on which multiplexes, see Channel listings | Freeview

I don't know who exactly you have been talking to, but I would have expected any reputable TV or Aerial installers to know that the transmitter was listed for Planned Engineering and where to find that information AND how to contact either the BBC, Freeview - the public facing organisation in the UK for terrestrial TV, or Arqiva - the UK company that do virtually all the transmitter maintenance, about any transmitter issues.

When a transmitter is off-air or on low power that you have no signal (whether it be fault or maintenance), it is not a good idea to retune as all this will do is clear existing correct tuning and you have to retune again when signal returns, this might have been a cause of loss of channels for extended periods if you didn't retune a second time.

There are several relay transmitters in your area, but the Keighley transmitter is not listed as a transmitter to serve virtually all parts of your postcode with any reliable signals, neither by Freeview nor the BBC. Although reception predictors aren't always 100% accurate, there are more reliable predicted signals from 2-3 relays, and 2 main transmitters depending on exact location. Reception of transmitters and multiplexes depends on topography.
I noted from Street View of your postcode that there's aerials pointing at a variety of transmitters (I didn't see any pointing in the Keighley direction though) quite a few of them were at each of the two main transmitters, but a lot at probably one of two relay transmitters. The main transmitter aerials will have the rods horizontal, whereas the relays will be vertical.

You are predicted to get reliable signals for all multiplexes from the Bilsdale (main) transmitter but that is Tyne Tees region and I'm guessing you'll want Yorkshire which is all the other transmitters.

Whilst you are predicted to get good reception from Emley Moor (main) transmitter for 5 or 6 of the 6 primary multiplexes (depending on exact location, the 6th ArqB may be variable to poor), you are predicted to get 6 multiplexes from the Idle relay, the main PSB multiplexes better than Emley, but the COMs 4-6 may be quite variable, not as good as Emley.

In view of your opening comments about what you've been told by "TV installers" you are calling, I wouldn't trust any of them further than I could spit. I would do several things - 1) Check to see which way your aerial is pointing (and that it hasn't fallen over or got bits missing), 2) check which way your neighbours aerials are pointing, 3) talk to you neighbours to see how reliable their signals are, 4) Get a reliable recommendation from a neighbour or use something like to find a recommended and trusted aerial installer in your locale if you need the aerial changed/altered. Check their reviews and how well they know your locale.

I would suggest in view of the reception predictions that a good installer might try for reliable signals from Emley Moor, failing that from the Idle relay transmitter. The reason for the latter is that reception of the main PSBs is predicted to be better or at least as good as any of the other transmitters, and the 3 COM multiplexes (SDN, ArqA, ArqB) may be more reliable than Emley and aren't available from the other (all "Light") relays.

Here's a bit of tech info about transmitter distances, direction, polarisation (rods), UHF channels in the order PSBs 1-3, COMs 4-6, and Aerial Group.
(Note, closeness does not automatically imply better reception as power may be much lower).

Emley Moor (main - Yorkshire), 21km, bearing 152 degrees (~SSE), Horizontal, UHF 47,44,41,33,36,48; Group K (T or Wideband will do, needed if you can get COM7, but not always as good for the other channels).
Idle, 7km, bearing 33 degrees (slighty N of NE), Vertical, UHF 23,26,30,32,35,34; Group A
Wharfdale (Light), 18km, bearing 23 degrees (NNE), Vertical, UHF 25,22,28; Group A
Bradford West (Light). bearing 15 degrees (slightly N or NNE), Vertical, UHF 39,42,45; Group B
Bilsdale (main - Tyne Tees), bearing 33 degrees (slightly N of NE), Horizontal, UHF 27,24,21,43,46,40 also 55 for COM7 (COM8 on 56 is closing at all transmitters on 22nd June, retune needed as channels move). Group T/Wideband if you want/can get COM7, otherwise Group K recommended.

If you end up going for Idle, you may have to manual tune rather than automatic to get the correct channels as the 3 relays (and Bilsdale) are almost in the same direct from you and probably well within the beamwidth of the aerial and although Bilsdale is Horizontal polarisation, the signal might just be strong enough to receive with a vertical aerial.

If you really are pointing at Keighley (~NNW, rods vertical), reception is predicted to be poor, UHF channels are 40,43,46,29,31,37 and you could well get interference form Bilsdale on the PSBs.

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Chris.SE's 3,707 posts GB flag
Monday, 27 July 2020
Jeanne Kelly
7:02 PM

We often experience picture freezing and sound loss problems on ITV and Channel 4 between 7 & 8pm. Postcode is BL7 9SL and nearest transmitter is Winter Hill. Any ideas how we can watch Channel 4 News without disturbance.

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Jeanne Kelly's 1 post GB flag
Jeanne's: mapJ's Freeview map terrainJ's terrain plot wavesJ's frequency data J's Freeview Detailed Coverage
Tuesday, 28 July 2020

12:45 AM

Jeanne Kelly :

According to the Freeview Detailed Coverage Checker you should have absolutely no trouble receiving any of the multiplexes (groups of channels) from Winter Hill, you are only 5km from it! You should even be able to get all the Local multiplexes except possibly the one for Preston. ITV and Channel 4 are on the D3&4 multiplex (see Channel listings | Freeview ).

If this picture freezing and sound loss is a regular event at exactly those times, it sounds like some sort of major interference problem. That sort of time typically would indicate maybe a boiler starting for heating hot water or central heating unless you or a near neighbour is using some other electrical equipment regularly at that time.
This could be either due to a fault on said boiler or other equipment, or a fault on your aerial installation and/or cabling. Or maybe you've changed something in your installation recently - if so, please provide some more details and we see if we can explain any possible causes.

Other than that, you would be wise to check that your aerial seems intact and pointing in the correct direction and that your downlead looks undamaged (especially if it is old). At your location the aerial should be pointing at a bearing of 265 degrees (almost due W) with the rods horizontal (compare with neighbours) - you should be able to see the transmitter clearly in any case.

Also check all your coax plugs, connections, flyleads etc, unplug connectors check for corrosion or other problems and reconnect them. Flyleads are a common problem, try swapping/changing them. See what signal strengths and quality you are getting for the multiplexes (groups of channels) shown in your TV's tuning section.
Problematic connections, water ingress etc. can seem to affect reception of just an individual or several multiplexes.

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Chris.SE's 3,707 posts GB flag
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