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What is Sky Digital?.
What do I need to receive it?.
What else do I need?.
How do I get these cards?.
Why do I need a card for a 'free' service?.
How much does it cost?.
Which foreign channels can I receive?.
Can I use it outside the UK?.
Extra facilities!.
How do I access the Service Menu?.
What about the future?.
Download Digibox Instructions.

Click here for remote details

ITV on Sky Digital.

No more 'free' BBC boxes.


What is Sky Digital?.

Sky Digital is the UK Satellite Television Service, provided by BSkyB, and broadcast via the SES owned Astra 2 series of satellites at 28.2 degrees east.

Part of BSkyB's license conditions are that they must allow other UK broadcasters to use their receivers and conditional access system, the costs for this must be 'reasonable' and are set by the authorities - not by BSkyB. Because of this, most of the UK terrestrial TV services are also carried on the Sky Digital system, the exception being ITV and ITV2, both of which have so far being prevented from being carried by the efforts of two of the largest ITV companies (Granada and Carlton) - who have a large stake in OnDigital (now renamed ITV Digital), the UK Terrestrial Service. It's strongly rumored that ITV will launch on Sky Digital towards the end of 2001 - ITV have signed for space with SES/Astra, so hopefully it won't be too long.

What do I need to receive it?.

The receivers required are known as 'Sky Digiboxes' and are made to a design from BSkyB by a small number of approved manufacturers (basically the ones who applied for, and were granted, a license to manufacture them). 

The encryption system is called VideoGuard, and is only available as an integral part of the Sky Digibox - separate CAM's are not available, and unlikely to be so, certainly for the foreseeable future. There are currently five manufacturers of Digiboxes, Pace, Grundig, Amstrad, Panasonic, and Sony (in order of first production), the current Panasonic (TU-DSB30) is fairly universally accepted as the best, as it's a generation ahead of the other boxes, and the EPG is FAR!! faster, although the new Pace box due out in September 2000 is supposed to be it's equal.

The Sony box has only recently being released, after it's announcement over a year ago, due to some controversy over it's facilities and the price! - however, the Sony box is the only one to include a Digital Optical Audio Output (the source of the controversy!) and it's not certain if it's enabled or not (a letter in the boxes says not, but samples I've tested work OK). I've recently spoken to Sony Technical, who assure me that the Digital Optical Audio Output is now fully working, the box just needs updating to the latest software version - which should be done by the installer before authorisation of the card/box.

Update August 2001: All manufacturers Digiboxes are now (at long last) 3rd generation, and equally fast, but make sure you get the latest version if speed is important to you. The Panasonic TU-DSB30 has been replaced by the TU-DSB31, which appears to be a 'cost improved' version, although it's as fast as the 30 the 31 no longer works in fringe areas - particularly Southern Spain. The best current box for such use appears to be the Grundig GRD310/2, which outperforms even the Panasonic TU-DSB30's, and has an S-Video output as well.

To feed the Digibox you simply need a suitable sized dish with a Universal LNB pointing as Astra 28.2E, for the UK only a small dish is required, and a suitable size mini-dish is provided as part of the package.

What else do I need?.

To enable the Digibox to receive almost all the UK channels, an access card is required, and there are two types of these (or at least two ways of getting the same card enabled for different services). The first is a 'Sky Digital' card, this is a subscription service requiring a monthly subscription, which can cost upto 34.00 depending on the subscription package you require - it also includes all the other FTV (Free To View) channels. The second type of card is a 'Subscription Free' card, often called a 'BBC Card', this requires no subscription, but only provides access to the free channels provided by the BBC, CH4, and CH5 - it's almost certain that the same card will provide access to ITV and ITV2, if and when they appear.

Once you have a box and card, you need to 'authorize' them, if connected to the phone line this is easily done via the built-in modem (requiring a handful of button presses), but without the phone line it requires a voice call - this usually takes a lot longer to work!.

These cards are actually 'married' to the boxes, you can't take a card from one box and use it in another - with a few exceptions!. The Sky non-premium channels will work OK with the card in the wrong box, as will CH4 and CH5, but the BBC channels and Sky premium channels won't work. If your box fails, and is replaced, you need to ring and get the card transferred to the new box.

How do I get these cards?.

To get a 'Sky Card' you need to approach BSkyB, and for a 'BBC Card' you ring the 'FTV Subscription Service' to order a card - these actually pass the card request onto BSkyB, so it takes longer to arrive.

Why do I need a card for a 'free' service?.

Unlike terrestrial broadcasting, satellite broadcasting can be received over a much greater area, so the broadcasts have to encrypted for copyright reasons. Broadcasting rights are bought for a particular area, in this case the UK, and there are severe restrictions about permitting access outside this area. This is one of the reasons why the BBC, CH4 and CH5 have opted for the Sky Digital platform, it offers much higher security than most other systems at a much lower cost than all other forms of broadcasting they use, and is UK specific. Although BSkyB rigorously pursue any systems they know has been taken outside their permitted service area (as they are required to do so!), the BBC are even more strict about it - being a programme maker they wish to sell their programming abroad, and broadcasting their output free to all of Europe would severely damage their sales figures.

This even applies inside the UK, with the BBC service being split into various regions, you are only allowed a card for the region you live in - based on your postcode. This is mostly done for copyright issues with football matches, BBC Scotland (for example) only buy the rights to show the match in Scotland, so it can only be viewed with a Scottish region card.

How much does it cost?.

This depends quite a bit!. For a UK address you are allowed one 'free' box per household, where if you subscribe to a full Sky package you pay 50 for 'installation', if you subscribe to a lesser Sky package you pay 70 for 'installation', or if you don't subscribe to Sky you pay 100 for 'installation'. Whilst Sky call these charges 'installation' it isn't really true, the installer only gets paid 40 for any of the three options - Sky pocket the difference!. In all cases you must agree to keep the box connected to a UK phone line for the first 12 months. If you don't want to have the phone connection (or don't have a phone line) you can pay for the box instead, and again the price of this varies depending on what you actually want!. There are two subsidies on the 'free' boxes, one from BIB and one from BSkyB, for a truly 'contract free' box the dealer is required to repay both subsidies, this makes the price around 369. A number of dealers are advertising boxes as 'contract free' for substantially less than this, but it's certain they are not repaying both (if any) of the subsidies.

New 2/1/2002 - BSkyB have now dropped the 'free' boxes for FTV cards, if you don't subscribe to Sky you pay 215 for the box, plus 100 installation, and a phone connection is still required!.

One important point - ALL BOXES COST EXACTLY THE SAME! - if a dealer tries to charge you more for a particular box, YOU ARE BEING RIPPED OFF!!

Second hand boxes are available, you can often find them fairly cheap in the free advertising magazines, but it's easily possible to get 200 for a second hand (out of contract) box with a 'BBC' card (or expired Sky card, these continue to work as an FTV card once you have cancelled the subscription).

Which foreign channels can I receive?.

Basically none!. There are no non-UK channels on the Astra 2 series of satellites, according to their representatives at presentations, SES consider 28.2 primarily a UK specific slot. However, if you point the dish elsewhere (including the Astra 1 slot at 19.2E) there are a number of FTA (Free To Air) channels you can receive, although the design of the receiver is such that it's made difficult, and only has a limited range of settings available.

I think practically, if you want to watch the FTA foreign channels, you would be far better getting a receiver designed for the job, and a steerable dish to go with it.

Can I use it outside the UK?.

Not officially! - the box is only supposed to be used inside the UK, and the conditions with the card prohibit it's use outside the UK. However, the coverage from Astra 28.2E covers the largest part of Europe, and many boxes have been taken outside the UK and are working happily. If you do want to take a box abroad, it's strongly! recommended that you take a Grundig GRD310/2 or Panasonic TU-DSB30 (not a 31) box, with Sony as a poorer choice (unless you can get hold of an old Pace or Grundig box) - many of the later use a new type of tuner (cheaper presumably?), and this has much less filtering. Once you get too far south (particularly down as far as Southern Spain) these boxes cease to work - the problem isn't signal strength, it's the difference in signal strength between the North and South beams from the satellite, the new tuners can't cope with the difference. If you check the footprint maps on the Astra Website, you'll soon see the problem. If in doubt, check with your dealer, or you could try asking me?.

Extra facilities!.

The Digibox includes a 'universal type' remote control, this allows the remote control to also work your TV (at least the great majority of TV's), I've included a page that gives full instructions on how to set the remote, plus the full installer list of code numbers required - Remote Control codes.

The Digibox also includes a second RF output, this can be used to feed another room, and has the additional feature of allowing an I/R 'magic eye' to be fitted in the second room, which feeds remote control signals back down the coaxial cable to control the Digibox. For this to work you must turn the 9 volt power on using the service menu.

You can also use the Digibox for sending and receiving E-Mail, with an E-Mail address supplied by Talk21 from BT (a free ISP), but it is extremely limited, you can only send one E-Mail at a time, and each one costs a phone call PLUS 1 PENCE!. If you've got a PC (or other decent home computer), it's a lot more effective to use that. But if you don't have any other way to send and receive E-Mail, it could be a useful service - a full ASCII keyboard is available to make this easier.

How do I access the Service Menu?.

To access the Service Menu you have to press a certain sequence of keys:

'Services'
'4'
'0', '1', 'Select'

This brings up the Service Menu, with various options, including new installation, setting the RF out channel, LNB options, and the 'magic eye' power select.

What about the future?.

The original series of Digiboxes didn't include a timer facility, they were originally supposed to, and it has been promised as a software upgrade since before the service started - eventually this has appeared, called a 'Personal Planner', and seems to work extremely well. The next generation however will include a timer, plus an internal hard drive to record programmes, or even time shift them by a small amount - for example, you are watching a programme and the phone rings, you just press a button on the handset and the picture freezes and the hard drive starts recording - when you finish your phone call you sit back down, press a button, and the programme continues from where it was, the hard drive continually buffers the incoming data and displays it as you want to watch it. It's strongly rumored (the boss of one of the distributors claims to have been shown them at a Pace demonstration) that these boxes will also allow reception of two channels at once, so you can watch one channel and record another - whilst only requiring one subscription card. 

I've now seen the press release from BSkyB, and all the above is true! - the box from Pace will include a 40GB hard drive, allowing 40 hours of recording time, it includes two tuners, allowing you to watch one channel while you record the other - however, it records the encrypted signal, so you require the card to be in the receiver to play the recordings back!. They are 'supposed' to be available 1st quarter 2001, and the price will be released then - so far they just describe it as 'an unsubsidised premium product', which sounds like a long winded way of saying 'expensive!'. For a guess, I would suspect they will sell for between 600 and 700, we can only wait and see. The box will use an extended version of the current EPG, modified for use with two tuners and the recording capability of the box. One nice feature is you can tell it to record all episodes of a series, quite a nice touch - hopefully it uses some system similar to PDC in case of late starts etc. The Pace PVR (Personal Video Recorder) actually records the incoming digital data stream, so picture quality should be exactly the same as the original broadcast - unlike the TiVo (see below).

Well, as usual, projected release dates come and go, the new Pace box is now due Autumn 2001, and is apparently going to cost 399 - BUT!!! - requires an extra 10 per month subscription, which rather spoils it!. It seems likely that they will make this release date, they are already running seminars for the ASA dealer network.

Well, it's now September 2001, and the Pace Sky+ PVR has been released (but only in very small numbers, so far we've had one - to use as a shop demo box). I've had a play with it, it's absolutely superb, it's easy to work, and the picture quality (as expected) is identical to the original programme. It's rather a large unit, but hides the card under a flap at the front, which is rather nice. It uses a different handset, basically a slightly larger version of the old one, with extra keys for the recorder - also it's not compatible with the old Sky handsets!!.

Before the Integrated Personal Television Recorder is released, Sky are releasing a TiVo box, which is just a recorder, and doesn't include a satellite receiver, these will be available from a small number of selected stores from mid-November - a few Dixon's and Curry's shops will have them, plus the top 25 independent Sky retailers (the rest of the trade will have to wait till January 2001). The cost of the TiVo box will be 399, and will record analogue or digital, terrestrial, cable, or satellite signals (presumably it just accepts a composite video or digital input), but for full functionality requires a 10 monthly subscription to TiVo, or a one off payment of 197. I've now found out what this is for, it's for the supply of schedule information, I imagine similar to what BSkyB supplies free in the EPG. According to people who have seen the TiVo in operation, it works quite well in 12 hour mode - but is totally useless in 40 hour mode, all the demonstrations only show 12 hour mode. If you are interested in one, make sure you see one demonstrated in 40 hour mode, preferably on some fast moving sport!

Amstrad Digibox DRX100 instructions for download - a PDF file of the instructions for the original Amstrad Digibox, as all boxes are very similar it applies pretty well to all makes of boxes.

Last Updated 25/03/06

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You can reach me by email at: nigelg@lpilsley.co.uk

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