This piece first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 10 July 1999
The text here may not be identical to the published text

Long march to join up for the revolution

One man's digital journey

If anyone asks me how to join the digital revolution, I give the sensible advice which I have given in these pages before - wait until you can get it through cable. It will be higher-tech, simpler, and probably less expensive. But everywhere outside parts of Manchester that still means waiting. Perhaps forever if do not live in one of the 11 million UK homes which have a cable running past them. And I wanted it now.

I only intended to dip a toe into the wider waters of digital television. So I did not go for Sky Digital and its endless channels of music and films received through a satellite dish installed on the most conspicuous wall of the house. Instead, I thought I would go down what I thought was the cheapest route - ONdigital. Digital television through your own aerial! Discreet, cheap, and British.

So off I went to Dixons for my free set-top box. Me and half the town. But eventually I was given a form to sign up to ONdigital for a year. Which channels did I want? You can join ONdigital for £6.99 a month. But all you get is one channel - apart from the free channels put out by the BBC and ITV. To get six extra channels costs £9.99 and to get 16 extra it is £11.99. And add another £18 a month to get Sky Movies and Sports channels. Faced with more choices than I could hold in my mind at once I chose a middle course - £15.98 a month. Once the form was signed I was registered and given my free Philips box - no choice about the make.

Back home I plugged it into my ageing square-screen Sony and followed the instructions. And again. And again. The remote control of the Philips box interfered with my television making it impossible to operate the two together. I later learned this was a known problem for some old Sonys and there is a fix - ultimately ONdigital will replace the Philips box with another make. My answer was to abandon the remote for the buttons on the front of the set-top box. The box downloaded the channels and there was digital television! But I only had half the channels I had paid for - Channel 4, ITV, FilmFour and several others were missing. And some of those I did have occasionally disappeared into a hailstorm of pixels. Time to call ONdigital to activate my registration - and to complain.

It was Sunday but I got through easily on 0870 600 1616 and it was agreed I needed an aerial engineer and advice about my remote control. As it was Sunday, someone would ring tomorrow. They didn't. At 4.45pm on Monday I rang again - engaged. I rang back the customer service line 0870 600 9696 and I got a message saying 'we're busy, ring back later'. That went on for a while. I decided to add the numbers to my phone's memory.

I decided I needed a new television as well. So £1500 later a 32inch flatscreen television was ordered and eventually delivered byAndy and Geoff in their white van. They fitted it and the remote control now worked fine. But the reception was still bad and the channels I had paid for were still not working. And what about wide-screen - everyone looked like a cheese puff. 'Not all programmes are shown in wide-screen' Andy said. True, I replied, but for example News 24 is all wide-screen so is a lot of the BBC. 'I dunno, I don't work for the BBC.' No. I replied but I do. And I can tell you it should be in true wide-screen. A shrug. 'Get onto Panasonic.' They left.

I rang ONdigital - one number engaged another 0870 600 9696 told me to ring back later. Eventually I got through to the main helpline. I was told to be patient - it takes 3 or 4 days to get an engineer. And I was given a third number in case I had problems getting through - 0870 600 7676. I waited for 3 days and nothing happened so I started ringing. By now I had added the main ONdigital helpline to my friends and family list. After all when you're paying national rates - 8p a minute - it's worth getting 10pc off. . Soon I'd have to make it my best friend. It was always engaged or ring back later. So I tried the third ONdigital number 600 7676. It invited me to call back between 8am and 11pm and 'a member of our team would be happy to help'. It was 4pm.

The next few days were spent dialling and redialling the three numbers I had - engaged, call back, and call back during the day. It took a week to get through. OK I was working and I didn't ring every few minutes but it did take a week - yes a week - to get through to the helpline. We agreed I needed a new aerial. An engineer would call. Three days later he did. Was I aware this was a chargeable call? No I was not. In fact I clearly remember being told - some months ago - that aerial calls were free. But without the money he would not begin and I was not sure I could face ringing ONdigital again at 8p a minute. So I paid.

Neil installed a new aerial and a new lead and left everything neat - Bless him, he even asked for a vacuum cleaner to sweep up! I got all my channels but wide-screen still didn't work. The picture was stubbornly 4:3 or smeared out. Call ONdigital? Why give more money to BT. The advice given in computer magazines came to mind. RTFM - read the manual. The set-top box gives a menu of user preferences. I choose 'television and video' and then 'screen settings'. Mine was set to 4:3. I changed it to 16:9. Magic! The automatic mode on the set worked to perfection.

Wide-screen is shown wide - normal aspect is shown between black bars. It is wonderful. The digital revolution has - partly - arrived. Now when is that interactivity going to begin?

Andrew Marr of ONdigital told me this week "In the early days of the free box offer we underestimated the demand. We just had volumes of calls. Quietest times to ring are early morning or late at night. We've brought in a lot more people now. For those who need an aerial call, a small minority, we do now make a £40 charge. Part of the routine is to warn people of it. I'm sorry that didn't happen."

10 July 1999

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