Published 23 November 2011 updated Dec 2014

Options for motels and hotels
post TV analogue switch-off

In New Zealand and indeed in many other places, analogue broadcasts have been phased out. Many motels and hotels have been reliant on analogue TV broadcasts for much of the programming that they make available in guest rooms. In New Zealand, despite the ascendancy of SKY TV, the smaller motel operators in particular had only distributed around three popular SKY services (mainly sports) due to the high rental fees that SKY charge to the hospitality industry. Operators have had to make some choices about how they will continue to provide the non-pay TV services.

A bit of background

Historical distribution diagram A From the time that TV began up until around 1989 here in N.Z, motel TV typically comprised a common VHF antenna, then possibly an amplifier, before being split out to the various units. (Diagram A) These items would have been located in the administration area or office block of the complex. The splitting arrangement might have been a bit different to that in the diagram, depending on how many separate blocks of units existed. For multiple blocks , the splitter at the head-end connected to further splitters in each block.

In each unit, the RF signal was connected to each TV, which at that stage was a CRT technology set with analogue tuner and commonly a screen size of 21".

Initially only one channel was available; TV1, but by 1975, TV2 was running and then in 1989, TV3 commenced, although it wasn't available in all areas.

Along came SKY

In May 1990, New Zealand was introduced to Pay-TV in the form of SKY who commenced with three channels in the UHF band. The three services were Movies/Sports/CNN News. The analogue PAL transmissions were scrambled using the sophisticated Videocrypt "line cut and rotate" technology. Some four years later, two further SKY UHF channels were added; "Orange" and Discovery. Motel operators soon realised they could get a jump on their competition by advertising that they had SKY. Addition of SKY diagram B The motel RF distribution arrangements became somewhat more complex as well. (Diagram B) A UHF antenna then became necessary and for every SKY channel, the motelier needed a receiver/decoder plus a RF modulator to convert the decoded programme back to an RF channel for distribution. The actual hardware may have varied a little from shown but regardless, performed the same functions.

One 'extra' not shown on these diagrams is the "motel movie channel". Some motels provided a locally sourced movie each night, which they played out from a VCR via another channel modulator. This gave a further point of difference from the competition and was useful anyway for motels in remote areas which were out of range of many TV transmissions.

SKY on satellite

For other than enthusiasts, the first time that satellite to the home was available in New Zealand was when SKY started using Optus B (now D1) at the end of 1998. Many more pay channels were now available than was possible using analogue UHF, however there was not a compelling need for motels to change from UHF, unless they wanted programmes that were not available on the UHF services. Most motels, especially smaller operations only wanted three SKY services because they could not justify the cost of the full suite.

However, SKY also was planning to turn off the UHF and was migrating customers to satellite. Most of SKY's customer base was on the satellite digital service by 2008 and the UHF was finally turned off in March 2010. For motel operators, going to SKY satellite meant a new satellite dish to replace the UHF antenna plus a set of new satellite receiver/decoders, but the downstream infrastructure remained the same. (Diagram C)SKY satellite diagram C

Picture quality issues

Picture quality in motel rooms is typically not good. I have stayed at many dozens of motels all over the country mostly in the course of business, and few have what I would call good quality pictures. Many are abysmal. There is no reason the quality has to be poor, even given that we are talking analogue PAL RF distribution. Recently I stayed at an apartment complex in the small South Island town of Hanmer Springs where the TV system was done like Diagram C, but the picture quality was almost perfect. Conversely, pictures in the room of an up-market Wellington city hotel were poor, having instability, snow, interference lines and one of my personal favourites -the inability for the viewer to change the TV aspect ratio. Amazingly, many people are quite happy to tolerate stretched pictures. Admittedly, this is not something that all broadcasters do well either.

Most quality issues occur in the RF distribution sections. The RF infrastructure has to be designed for the situation and not just knocked together. Problems such as weak signals, mismatching, poor isolation, overloads or installing inappropriate hardware, especially the mis-use of RF amplifiers, multiply rapidly as the complexity of the system increases and especially as the number of services grows. Most operators, understandably have little understanding of the engineering but even more regrettably, moteliers can be given poor advice by players in the installation industry.

Options following analogue switch-off

There are more up-market ways to distribute pictures within motel complexes. Some high end hotels have purpose designed systems with decoder units in each room, which allow for multiple pay services including the ability to book pay-per-view programmes which are automatically charged back to the room account. Other than these proprietary arrangements, the current system in 2011 for most motels/hotels is some variation based on Diagram C.

New Zealand has completed switching off all analogue TV transmissions. The entire hospitality industry has had to provide an alternative method of receiving the 'free' TV programmes available. I would certainly recommend that operators get their current system audited by a professional and then look at their options. The consultant should be able to recommend several ways forward and that must include the future aspirations of the owner/operator along with the highlighting of any technical weaknesses of the present systems. I should add that although analogue transmissions have ceased, there is nothing to stop motels distributing TV to all the rooms in the present RF analogue format. Although operators have by now replaced all the CRT sets with flat screen types, many do not have digital tuners, so analogue RF input is still required and may be the least expensive way to continue.

Decisions for the motel owner/operator

Any audit of a present system should answer the following questions, before establishing any cost options.

  1. Are you near to replacing all the unit TV sets?
  2. Would you pay for decoders in every unit?
  3. Are you happy to get all your programming through SKY, including TV1/2/3 etc.?
  4. Do you want high-definition, assuming you are in a HD transmission area?
  5. Any building renovation or expansion plans?
Answers to these will help determine which option is right for you. Possible options will include the following:

Possible future arrangements

The above does not represent all the possibilities and there may be hybrid options as well. Success may depend on the condition of your existing infrastructure. Only by having a system audit can a proper range of options be explored.

Further down the track

TV broadcasting technologies are still evolving. The current DVB-T terrestrial standard in use for FreeviewHD has already been overtaken by DVB-T2, which some countries are beginning to adopt. It offers far greater channel capacity than does DVB-T. Unfortunately, the current Freeview receivers and TV's will not be able to receive DVB-T2, although if you bought a DVB-T2 receiver, it would be able to receive DVB-T (backwards-compatible). There is no reason why a Pay-TV operator could not start up a service using the DVB-T2 standard. You would have to lease a receiver for their service anyway, so why not make it the latest technology. Current capacity of a DVB-T multiplex in N.Z is some 26Mbits/second. A DVB-T2 system configured for the same level of robustness can deliver over 35Mbits/second, making a platform of 10-15 SD programmes available using MPEG4/AVC.

There is always a level of noise about TV services being delivered over the internet. We know this is possible, but in order to replace broadcast delivery, every part of the downstream path will need to be much faster and robust than it is now. Rural and remote areas will always lag behind in infrastructure and so this delivery method will not be attractive for years to come.

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