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TV over the internet is here but be sure to read the small print

Offerings might look similar, but beware that some are available only with a broadband package, some include annual ‘inflation’ price rises, and some are limited in terms of recording and other features

At the risk of sounding like someone’s ageing, cranky mother, people these days don’t know that they are born.

There was a time when all TV in Ireland was a handful of channels, and if you were lucky, you got extra channels via cable. The idea of pausing live TV to make a cuppa hadn’t even been dreamed of yet, and new episodes were a weekly event, rather than binge-watched seven years after the series finished.

Then came Sky TV, with satellite dishes, followed by digital TV and streaming services. But there were still some limitations. Not all properties were suitable for satellite dishes, and in apartments for example, some management companies refused to allow residents to have their own. In other areas, services simply weren’t available, or required major upgrades before services could be offered. All that adds up to long waits for consumers and significant investments for service providers.

But now there is IPTV – in other words, TV over the internet. And while that is not brand-new technology – Netflix launched its video on demand service in 2007, and the RTÉ Player came in 2009 – it’s now even easier to get than before.

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All the big TV operators in Ireland now offer some form of streaming TV, from Sky and Virgin Media to newer entrants such as Vodafone.

This has its advantages. Internet-based TV is more flexible. You can put the set-top boxes anywhere in the house without needing to run extra cables. As long as your home wifi has coverage, you will be able to get your TV service wherever you want.

It also makes it easier to switch TV providers to get a better deal, in the same way that you switch broadband or electricity companies. Sign up for a discount, and when that expires, move on to the next one.

The downside? You will need decent broadband. Not just a good speed – a minimum of 25Mbps for most of the services, but the faster the better if you want to avoid buffering and stuttering video – but also a reliable connection that won’t drop repeatedly.

And some (not all) of these services come with a catch: you need to be a broadband customer before you can get TV.

So taking all that into account, what is on offer for Irish customers?

SKY STREAM

First there was Sky Glass, the company’s TV with a built-in set-top box. With that came the Sky puck, the streaming TV box that initially was intended to facilitate multiroom. Now it is a stand-alone product in its own right, called Sky Stream.

That means no dish is needed, and you can put the boxes anywhere you like in your home. All that is required is a decent wifi signal, or if you prefer, an Ethernet connection.

It also means that you get the Sky Glass interface, and can use voice commands to search for content. Built into that are the various streaming apps, including Apple TV, Netflix, Paramount Plus and Prime Video, alongside the RTÉ, TG4 and Channel 4 players. Once you log in to your accounts, all the available content will be gathered in one place – and searchable.

Netflix’s basic subscription – HD content and one device at a time – is included with the entertainment pack, which is worth an additional €9 a month.

Sky has opted for more flexibility for customers. Unlike other TV providers, Sky does not require customers to sign up to its broadband service. Sky’s streaming TV solution will work with any broadband with a speed of 25mbps or above. You can add broadband, with speeds of up to 1GB, but it will depend on availability in your area. And there is an option for a month-to-month TV contract, avoiding tying yourself into a longer deal.

There are limitations, however. Unlike Sky Q, Sky Stream doesn’t allow recording of programmes. Instead you get a playlist of programmes that you can access through on-demand or replay services. That means you can’t save programmes to view at a later date – if it goes off online services, you can no longer access it. And while there is a lot of content available to add to your playlist, there are some exceptions – BBC programmes, for example, are unavailable for the most part.

Cost

It costs €25 a month for basic TV package on a 12-month contract for new customers, and €30 for a month-to-month contract. Extras such as Sky Sports and Sky Cinema are also available. Extra streaming boxes will add to the monthly cost. When the 12-month period expires, the cost doubles.

VIRGIN MEDIA TV 360 STREAMING

The latest entrant to the streaming TV market is Virgin Media’s TV 360 Streaming box, and it also happens to be the smallest out there.

The new box replaces Virgin’s regular TV 360 set-top box with something a fraction of the size – smaller than an Apple TV box and a fraction of its thickness. It is so small that it can be mounted on the wall beside or under the TV with a couple of Velcro strips.

Despite its small size, you still get choices over how you want to connect to your home network, offering both wifi and Ethernet, with the latter connecting through the plug.

Unlike the TV 360 set top box, you don’t have a hard drive inside; any recordings are held in the cloud, with up to 500 hours of space. You are limited, though, with some channels unavailable for recording. The small size of the box means it is easy to add multiple boxes wherever you need them, for a fee, with up to six allowed on each broadband account.

Like Sky, Virgin’s box Includes streaming apps and players, too, so you only need one device connected to your TV.

The move to streaming TV brings another change, and it won’t suit everyone. Virgin Media will only supply streaming TV to its own broadband customers. In the past you could get Virgin TV without the broadband attached; the phasing out of the older set-top box means this is no longer an option.

Cost

TV and 500Mb broadband cost from €50 a month on a 12-month contract for new customers. Virgin charges an activation fee for both products, and once your offer expires, the cost rises to more than €100.

VODAFONE TV PLAY

Vodafone, once known only for its mobile network, has branched out in the past few years. That includes a streaming TV service that has developed from the original Vodafone TV back in 2016 to the current Vodafone TV Play.

Vodafone pitches its set-top box as a smart entertainment hub that will work as well for music as it does for TV, so you can stream your music to the box and take advantage of its Bang & Olufsen sound technology. It also has Dolby Atmos, and supports 4K HD video.

Voice control seems to be a standard feature for the new generation of TV boxes, and Vodafone’s is no exception. The Play TV box comes with Google Assistant built in, which should be familiar to many users.

Vodafone’s service offers cloud recordings, though not all channels can be recorded, similar to the other services. And be warned: recordings are usually deleted after 30 days. So you can’t hoard that series for binge-watching later on.

There are other things to be aware of. Not only is this service for Vodafone broadband customers only, but it is specifically for fixed broadband customers. If you pay for mobile broadband, even Vodafone’s 5G service, you can’t access it.

Cost

Vodafone Play TV looks slightly more expensive than other similar packages – €65, with a €10 discount for the first six months – but Vodafone has ditched the steep price hikes once the contract expires. That doesn’t mean you won’t see prices rise, however. Vodafone has an annual price hike of 3 per cent plus the rate of inflation that it applies in April each year.

EIR TV

Going strictly on price, Eir TV looks like the best deal. For an additional €10 a month, you get access to the basic TV service, which comes with 50 channels and a bundled Prime Video membership.

The company launched the service in 2019, replacing the Eir Vision TV offering with something more upmarket. Eir TV comes with an Apple TV streaming box, so you get access to all the apps and games on Apple’s platform.

Eir bundles the box with its own TV remote, too, which includes voice search. If you have an iPhone, you can also use your phone as a remote for Apple TV, and there is Siri built in for voice commands.

Eir also allows you to record programmes – up to 500 programmes, regardless of length – and stores them in the cloud.

However, you can’t record on all channels, with RTÉ and Virgin Media among providers that have yet to agree a deal on content.

And like the majority of TV providers now, you must have Eir’s fibre broadband to get Eir TV, with a minimum speed of 15Mbps.

Cost

Eir TV can be added for €10 a month to the broadband package of €35, with a contract of 12 months. After that the price more than doubles to €75. There is also the matter of the planned price increases. According to Eir, each April the costs will rise by the inflation rate plus 3 per cent.

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