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Topic: Technical Issues for Expats: Understanding Electrics, Phones, TVs and more ...  (Read 54275 times)

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I know there are already some articles here relating to electrical matters, but I've put together the following in the hope that some of you might like a little more detail on the most common differences and problems you'll encounter when moving to the U.K.   

I'll post this in installments to give me time to write it and you time to read and digest it.   This first part will deal with the basic differences in power and how they affect appliances, then later I'll cover specifics relating to house wiring, radio, TV, and telephones.

I wasn't sure whether to post in "Moving Issues," but as this will progress from "What to bring" to general issues about UK house electrics,  I thought the general area might be more suitable. 

Hope this benefits somebody.


SUPPLY VOLTAGE

First, a little about the power supply to your house.  In America, all but the oldest residential services are a type known as single-phase 3-wire, and deliver both 120- and 240-volt power to your home.  The full 240V is used for your electric range, clothes dryer, water heater, large air-conditioning units, and other heavy, power-hungry appliances, while everything else runs on 120V.   

In contrast, the normal British home has just a 2-wire service, and everything from the range down to the smallest light bulb runs on 240 volts.  For a start then, portable appliances running on American 120V supplies cannot be used directly in Britain, unless they can be adjusted for 240V operation. 

Appliances which incorporate any sort of heating element will almost always be designed for one voltage only.  That includes your clothes iron, toaster, curling tongs, waffle iron, hair dryer, and so on.  You can also be fairly certain that any small motorized kitchen gadgets such as an electric can opener or food mixer will also be designed for 120V only.   The same goes for almost all power tools, like electric drills and sanders.

With electronic devices such as radios and hi-fi systems, the situation is a little different.   Some power supplies are designed for only 120V operation, others are switchable for various world voltages.   Equipment marketed primarily into just the North American market may well not be adjustable, for example, whereas almost all of the Japanese hi-fi units up until the 1980s were sold worldwide and can be set for almost anywhere.

You'll need to look at the bottom and/or rear of the unit in question for two things.  First, if you see any sort of voltage selector marked 120/240V or similar, you know you're in luck.  Second, you're looking for the specification label, which among other things will list the allowable supply voltages and frequencies (more on the latter a little later on).    If the label says the unit can be used on 240V but there is no visible selector, then the adjustment may be located inside so that you need to remove a cover to get at it.  This is more likely to be the case with older equipment (e.g. 1970s). 

Many modern electronic devices (from the late-1980s onward) use a type of power supply which will operate over a very wide input voltage range with no adjustment.  The label will state something like "90 to 260V."     These  supplies are very common on the chargers for cordless shavers, laptop computers, etc., as well as on some video and audio equipment, and you can simply plug them directly into 240V once the issue of the physically different plugs has been dealt with.

A lot of modern devices don't plug directly into the wall outlet, but instead have a separate power pack, either a stand-alone unit or one which incorporates its own plug which goes straight into the wall receptacle, sometimes referred to as a "wall wart."      These units are seldom designed to accept anything other than one particular supply voltage, but the good news is that in many cases you can simply obtain a replacement power unit which accepts 240V British power and provides the same output power as your original American unit.  (No prizes for guessing that this is just what the manufacturer does when shipping to different countries.)

For 120V equipment which you especially want to use in Britain, you can buy a suitable transformer to convert our 240V supply down to 120V.   Prices vary according to quality, as you would expect, but as a general rule the larger the transformer, the more it will cost.   If you really have a sizable quantity of equipment which will be used in one place (e.g. an extensive hi-fi or computer system), then it is much more cost-effective to buy one large transformer to supply the whole lot than several small units.   You can buy transformers which come ready fitted with a UK 240V plug and one or more American 120V receptacles on the front panel into which you can connect your equipment or U.S. power strips

In rather simplistic terms, if you look at the wattage or "VA" rating on the equipment labels and add up everything you want to be able to use simultaneously, then that will give the minimum size of transformer you need.   I say that this is in simplistic terms, because there are complications (aren't there always?).  Some equipment, particularly anything with a fairly powerful motor draws a much larger surge of current when it's first switched on, and you will need a larger transformer to allow for this.   

Many people are quite attached to bedside lamps.  At the basic level, it is true that you can just change the 120V bulb for a 240V type and it will light just fine.  Unfortunately, you are then running the lampholder and switch at the higher voltage as well, and these are not always intended for such use.   I would not advise anyone to just go ahead and run a portable lamp on 240V without seeing it to determine whether it is suited to the higher voltage.   


FREQUENCY

As if the voltage problems were not enough, the frequency of the British supply is also different.  The power supplied is known as alternating current because the electrons actually flow one way round the circuit, then change direction and flow the other way.  In America, the standard is 60 Hertz, meaning that the current goes through 60 complete alternating cycles every second (i.e. it changes direction 120 times per second).  In Britain the frequency is lower, at 50 Hz  (Some parts of the U.S. used 50 cycles in the past as well, e.g. the Los Angeles area changed from 50 to 60Hz during the 1930s.)

For many appliances, the frequency difference is of little or no consequence.  Simple lamps, heating devices, and so on are completely unaffected.  Many electronic devices are also just fine on the lower frequency, as they convert the power to other types internally anyway.  Strictly speaking, the transformers may run slightly warmer on the lower frequency, but in practice at the low power levels used in domestic equipment the difference is so small as to be inconsequential..   

The frequency problem manifests itself most commonly when it comes to motors, or to be precise, certain types of motors.   Broadly speaking, motors can be divided into synchronous and asynchronous categories.  Synchronous motors, as the name suggests, have a rotational speed which is linked to the supply frequency.  Thus a motor intended for 60Hz operation will run at only about 5/6 normal speed on British 50Hz power.  Asynchronous motors aren't locked to the frequency and don't have this problem.

The motors used in portable power tools, kitchen food mixers, hair dryers, are so on are normally of the asynchronous type, and will run on 50Hz with few problems.  Again, technically a motor intended specifically for 60Hz run on 50Hz may run very slightly warmer than before, and it will not perform at quite such peak efficiency as on the proper frequency, but for light domestic motors such as these the difference is very small and unlikely to be a problem (so long as you get around the voltage difference, of course).

Synchronous motors are commonly found in mechanical clocks, timers, and older traditional-style record and tape decks.  Unfortunately, these are just the applications in which the correct speed is essential.  The clocks are best left at home.  If you have a collection of older hi-fi equipment, it may be possible to obtain replacement pulleys for the motors to run them on 50Hz, but this will depend very much upon make and model.

Modern CD players, cassette decks, and so on use a completely different type of motor arrangement and are not affected by the frequency difference. 


Note that a 240-to-120V transformer does not alter the frequency.   Conversion is possible, but it is a much more complex process than just stepping the voltage up and down, and the equipment to do it is much more expensive, so unless you really want to get involved in the technical complexities, it is easiest to leave equipment with synchronous motors at home in the States.   

Just in case anyone has an older model digital clock, be warned that some of these also derived their timing from the supply, so even if you feed through a transformer they will be anything but accurate.  Newer digital clocks normally use a quartz crystal source just like a digital watch, and don't suffer from this problem.

To be continued....

« Last Edit: July 24, 2005, 07:50:12 PM by Cait »
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Re: Technical Issues
« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2005, 04:07:13 PM »
PLUGS

The standard modern British plug has three large rectangular prongs, like this:



It's known officially as a BS1363 plug (BS = British Standard), but is more commonly called a "13-amp plug" for its maximum current rating.  

These plugs were introduced in the late 1940s and gradually replaced the older round-pin types, but the changeover took many years, and it wasn't at all unusual to find older sockets in homes as late as the 1970s.    This mixture of socket types meant that appliances were supplied with no plug, so generations of Brits became quite used to the idea that you buy your own plug at the local hardware store or supermarket and fit it yourself.   (It saved the manufacturer some money too!)  

These days, however, as older homes have been renovated and rewired, it is very rare to find any of these older types of sockets in use, so don't pay too much attention to those  guides which still suggest you need a suitcase full of travel adapters when visiting the U.K.    

With the BS1363 plug now almost universal, a law was enacted a few years ago requiring all portable appliances to be sold with a plug ready-fitted.    You might still be able to enjoy wiring your own plug for any of those appliances you bring with you which can be adjusted for 240V operation.  

On the subject of travel adapters, the first thing to be very clear about is that the basic adapter just lets you change from one plug type to another.   It is not like a transformer and does not change the voltage.     Frankly, travel adapters are best used only for temporary visits.  Many are of poor or at least dubious quality, and really have little to recommend them for permanent use.   I've even found some (often the multi-way UK/USA/Europe/Australia types) which are of questionable safety when used in certain combinations.    Besides, if you have a fair number of appliances to convert adapters will work out much more expensive than just buying a box of British plugs and fitting them in place of the originals.  

New plugs sold in stores come with a little card fitted to show the correct wiring, a task which is complicated by the fact that we partially changed our color coding around 1970, so the instructions on many plugs still list both systems.    If you are wiring a British plug to an American appliance cord, this is further complicated by the fact that American color coding is different again (American black-white-green corresponds to the modern British brown-blue-green/yellow respectively).

One other aspect about these British plugs which is different is that they each contain a small cartridge fuse, like this:



Any time an appliance here stops working yet you know there is still power at the wall socket, this is one of the first things to check.  As you might expect, replacement fuses are widely available at corner stores as well as DIY chains, supermarkets, hardware outlets, and so on.   Note that 3 and 13 amp sizes (for appliances under and over approx. 700 watts respectively) are the most widely used these days, but other sizes are available as well (and people don't always fit the correct size, by the way).

HOUSE WIRING

Wall sockets come mostly in single and twin types, the latter having the two outlets side by side:



The majority of sockets fitted in British homes have a switch for each outlet which allows an item to be turned off completely without withdrawing the plug.   Another little quirk you will need to get used to is that these switches -- along with regular light switches -- operate the opposite way to the American convention, i.e. up is off, down is on.   As well as the switches, these sockets also have automatic shutter mechanisms which cover the hot terminals when no plug is inserted, intended to stop curious little fingers from poking metallic objects into them.

In America, the NEC (National Electrical Code) has for many years specified a certain number and position of outlets.  In Britain, though, many homes were built with very few outlets, and at the economy end of the market even as recently as the 1970s it was not at all unusual to find just one or two single sockets in a bedroom and a couple of doubles in a living room.   Consumer demand for gadgets since the 1980s has resulted in modern installs being much more generous on outlets than in the past, but be prepared to find that there aren't quite as many to hand as you may like.

You won't find any of these sockets wired to a wall switch for a plug-in lamp as is done in some American homes (and in any case the design of our double sockets makes it impossible to have the American-style split arrangement where one half is permanently on and the other half is switched).    

Switched lighting outlets did have a certain following in the past, and even into the 1980s in fancier homes, but the arrangement never seemed to gain the popularity here that it has in the U.S., and now seems to have gone completely out of vogue.   If you do happen to have a home with a switched lighting outlet, it will almost certainly be the small 2-amp round-pin type, like this:



While we're on the subject of lighting, you'll find dimmers and lights controlled from two switches just as at home, however the latter is called a "2-way" switching arrangement here, not "3-way" as it would be in America (What with that and the second floor being called the first floor, you might be forgiven for thinking that we can't count!).

Note also that the majority of regular light bulbs here are a bayonet fitting rather than the Edison Screw type.   To release a bulb from its holder you just have to push upward slightly, turn slightly counter-clockwise, and it will drop out.   ES bulbs have become more common in recent years as they are also widely used in Continental Europe, but the bayonet fitting is still the most common in British fixtures.

If you have an electric range (or "electric cooker" to use the British terminology), then you should find that somewhere nearby is an isolating switch which needs to be turned on before the unit will work.  In many modern homes this is just a large switch on the wall, often with a red rocker, and sometimes labeled "Cooker."    The traditional style unit also incorporates a normal socket as well:



In the average British kitchen of the past this socket was almost always used for the ubiquitous tea kettle, and in fact in many houses this was the only one in the kitchen!   Fortunately for all of you gadget-lovers, the modern fitted-kitchen is more likely to be equipped with plenty of sockets around the worktops, although like the rest of the house an older kitchen may still seem short of outlets compared to the average American kitchen.

You may also find some switches at a similar level to the sockets which resemble regular light switches but which may (or may not) incorporate a red warning light.   These have become fairly common in modern fitted kitchens to turn off power to a socket below the worktop used for a fridge, freezer or similar to allow for defrosting and servicing without having to pull the thing out to get at the plug.   If you're lucky, these might even be labeled as to their function.   Other similar switches can be found at various points around the house for water heaters, heated towel rails, wall-mounted heaters. and similar appliances, but their function is not always immediately obvious if located remotely.  Some of these incorporate a pull-out carrier which holds a fuse just like the one used in a plug.  Again, if the appliance in question stops working, this would be one of the first things to check.

Moving to the bathroom, one thing you'll notice immediately in most houses is the lack of sockets.  That's because the British wiring code (not mandatory, but widely followed) has for decades specified that the only socket which should be installed in a bathroom is a special type for electric shavers.   The stance against regular sockets could be considered to be bordering on the paranoid considering that most other countries -- even those using similar higher voltage to Britain -- allow them.  

The shaver outlets use an isolating transformer which is intended to reduce the risk of electric shock, and British shavers are supplied with a plug which has two round pins (this is the only remaining remnant of the old round-pin plugs still in common use).   The shaver outlet may be combined with a strip light over a mirror, or it may be a completely separate unit.

At least one benefit of having the isolating transformer is that it's then very simple to add a 120V output for the benefit of overseas visitors, and many shaver units provide both 120 and 240V power.  The design varies, but there will either be a voltage selector switch or two separate sockets marked for the appropriate voltages, as in this example:



Many of the modern shaver outlets have sockets which are designed to accept plugs from all over the world.  The one pictured will take an American or European plug on the 120V side and a British, Australian, or European plug on the 240V side, for example.

These shaver sockets can provide only a limited amount of power, generally in the region of 20 to 30 watts, enough for an electric toothbrush, charger for cordless shavers, and even a small radio, but certainly nowhere near enough for a hair-dryer, so don't even think about trying one!

Bathroom lights are often controlled by a ceiling-mounted switch with a pull cord.  This is another result of the British wiring code which says that regular wall switches musn't be placed within reach of somebody in the tub or shower.  

Instant electric shower units have become very common in recent years, and these also have an isolating switch which needs to be turned on before use.  This switch may be a wall type in or outside the bathroom, or if close to the shower cubicle it will likely be another cord-operated ceiling switch.  

Next: Fuse panels & Electric heating....


« Last Edit: April 10, 2005, 10:02:02 PM by Paul_1966 »
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Re: Technical Issues
« Reply #2 on: April 10, 2005, 10:07:58 PM »
FUSE PANELS

I don't intend to go into a great deal of detail on the technical aspects of distribution panels, but as with other electrical fittings, the British versions are somewhat different to those found in American homes.   Panels may be located in various places, depending upon the type and age of the house, and whether the incoming electrical service is underground or overhead.    In many older houses the meter will also be alongside the panel indoors, although in new homes it has become common for the meter to be located in a cabinet on the outside for easier access.

Modern houses, or those rewired in recent years may be fitted with circuit breakers, which while arranged differently to American types operate in a similar way, the handle tripping to the "off" position when a fault occurs.   In British panels, these breakers are usually arranged in a single horizontal row, and unlike light switches normally operate with up for on, down for off.    There will also be main switches and circuit breakers which may control groups of circuits, but the possible configurations are too numerous to examine in detail in this short summary.

Circuit-breakers in domestic wiring only became widespread here during the 1980s, so in older homes you are likely to find fuses instead.   These come in two types -- Cartridge and rewirable.    Cartridge fuses look similar to those used in the British plug, but are of different sizes.  The carriers pull out from the panel so that the fuse cartridge can be replaced, just like those found for the main and range fuses in some older American panels.  If your panel uses this type of fuse, then it's a good idea to keep a couple of each size used as spares.  (Note that you won't see the old American-style screw-in fuse here.)   

For many years the rewirable fuse was the most common type in domestic wiring in Britain, and there are still thousands in use in older homes.  These fuses are relatively crude devices, abandoned long ago in most other countries (call it British quaintness or quirkiness, if you like).    Rewirable fuses were cheap to install, but from a technical viewpoint have little to recommend them.  From a practical standpoint, when a fuse blows you are faced with having to strip out the remnants of the old burned-out fuse wire and thread a new length through the carrier yourself.  Stores sell little cards of fusewire, generally in three sizes (5, 15, and 30 amps) for the most commonly used types.  If your house still has rewirable fuses, then you'll want to keep some fusewire handy, just in case.   (The line in The Beatles' "When I'm 64" about "I could be handy mending a fuse" should now have greater meaning to you!)

Note that in many older houses which have not been completely renovated, it's not at all unusual to find a horrible mess of multiple fuse panels where extras have been added as modifications have been made over the years.



HEATING & ECONOMY 7

Gas and oil-fired central heating are common here, but there are many homes which are fitted with electric storage heaters.  These are room units which are loaded with bricks and make use of the cheaper night-rate electricity offered by the power companies.   The most widely used scheme is called "Economy 7" as it provides the low-cost power for seven hours each night, generally from midnight through 7 a.m. in winter, 1 a.m. through 8 a.m. in summer, although in some areas the times are staggered a little). 

When power is turned on at night, the bricks are charged with heat by the embedded elements.  A physical damper and thermostat arrangement is then used to allow the stored heat to be released gradually during the day.   The advantage to this system is that the night-rate electricity is normally priced at about half of the regular day rate.  The disadvantage is that it is notoriously difficult to judge what the weather will be like and adjust the charge and temperature controls on the heaters accordingly, especially during the very unpredictable British spring and fall when it can be 70 degrees and sunny one day, 50 and dull the next. 

You will normally find an individual switch fitted next to each storage heater to allow it to be turned off, and because the power to the heaters is switched on only at night, these circuits have to be  connected back to a separate fuse panel.  Where Economy 7 is in use, therefore, you will find a special panel which feeds just the heaters, and the meter will have a double-set of dials to record the night usage separately from the regular day usage.

There are a couple of variations on the night-storage theme which you may come across, especially in houses built in the late 1960s/early 1970s.  One uses a centralized storage heater, generally located in a closet somewhere.  This is just like a much larger version of the individual stoage heater and can hold a much larger charge.  Distribution of heat to each room is then by fan and ducting, much like the central-furnace systems common in America.   

The second variant actually has heating elements embedded in a solid concrete floor, the mass of the concrete being charged overnight and releasing its heat during the day, much as the bricks do in a storage heater.   In some cases this is used in conjunction with regular storage heaters.

There were some older installations in which the heaters were fed from a completely separate night-rate meter (you might hear people talking about a "white meter"), but the modern version you are most likely to find also switches the regular house circuits to the low rate at night.  Thus where Economy 7 is being used, it can help save money if you run other power-hungry appliances such as clothes dryers at night, using timeswitches if you wish.   Similarly, where the water heating is electric, it is beneficial to install a timeswitch and set it to heat the cylinder in the early hours of the morning on the lower rate.

There are a few variants of Economy 7 available in some areas.  Economy 10, for example, was designed to provide the standard 7 hours night-rate but to give an extra 3-hour boost of power in the late afternoon at rates somewhere between the standard night and day ones (the intent being to overcome one of the problems of storage heaters that they've lost a lot of their charge by the time you need the heat in the evening).

Next:  Radio & TV
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Re: Technical Issues
« Reply #3 on: April 18, 2005, 06:25:26 PM »
RADIO

Leaving aside any problems of 240 vs. 120-volt power, which we've already examined, an American radio will receive most British broadcasts, although there are a few minor points to consider.

First, AM radio in Britain uses both the regular broadcast band (commonly called the "Medium Wave" band here) and a lower-frequency band known as "Long Wave"  which runs from approx. 150 to 280 kilohertz.  Domestic American radios are not normally equipped with this band as it is not used for broadcasting in North America.    The absence of a LW band is not too great a problem, however, as very few British transmitters actually use it, the main one being the BBC's "Radio 4" station, which can be received on FM in most areas anyway.    Many imported radios sold in Britain do not have provision for LW reception either.

A problem which has become of increasing importance in recent years is that Britain (and Europe in general) uses a different channel spacing.  In America the FCC assigns station frequencies on 10kHz spacings, i.e. 530, 540, 550, 560kHz etc.   British assignments use a 9kHz spacing: 531, 540, 549, 558, 567 kHz, and so on.    If you have a radio of the traditional type with a continuously variable tuning dial, this is no problem whatsoever, but many modern radios use digital tuning.  If you can tune the radio in 1kHz increments then again it will be fine, but if the radio is programmed to stop only on 10kHz spacings, then you won't be able to tune it to British stations properly.   Many of the latest car radios fall into this category.   Some digitally tuned radios can be reconfigured to 9kHz spacing with a special key sequence or by moving an internal link, but this will depend entirely upon the make and model.

One other quirk of British broadcasting is that up until the 1970s most radios made for the domestic market had their dials marked in terms of wavelength rather than frequency, because that's what the broadcasters announced over the air.  (Technically, the two are related and inversely proportional, i.e. as frequency goes up, wavelength goes down).    So if you come across an older radio here, you may well find that the MW dial is marked in meters (or "metres" to be British about it!):  Approx. 200 to 550m for MW, and 1000 to 2000m for LW. 

When it comes to FM radio, Britain had a late start compared to the United States.  FM broadcasts didn't commence here until 1955, and for many years were just higher-quality transmissions of the same stations which were on AM.  In fact right up until the 1980s, practically every FM broadcast was also available on AM.  It is only in comparatively recent times that we've seen a distinction bewteen AM and FM stations, and many stations continue to broadcast on both today. 

An American FM radio will receive British broadcasts, and in stereo too, as Britain adopted the same method of encoding as America.   Technically, there is a slight difference in the frequency response between our two systems, but for most practical purposes it is of little significance and is easily compensated with a slight adjustment of the tone controls. 

The same caution about digital tuning applies to FM as to AM.  In the United States, FM stations are assigned on 200kHz channels with an odd last digit, i.e. 88.1, 88.3, 88.5, 88.7 MHz, etc.  In Britain, stations may also use the even slots in between (e.g. 88.2 or 88.4MHz), and there are even one or two transmitters on a 50kHz channel (e.g. 88.25 MHz).    So once again, some digital tuners intended for the American market will not be able to tune all British FM stations properly.  You can check this by seeing the steps the display takes when tuning.  Again, on some models it is possible to reconfigure the tuning to a "world" setting.

British FM transmitters now carry a service known as RDS, or the Radio Data System.  This provides station information which is shown in the display of suitably equipped radios, allows the set to interrupt a broadcast and switch to another station when a news flash or travel bulletin is announced, and even provides for the radio to automatically tune to another frequency on the same network when driving across country.    This system is a purely European specification,  so it won't be available on American radios.

In recent years, we've also seen the rise of DAB, or Digital Audio Broadcasting, which carries additional stations.  Again, the technical standard for DAB is totally different to anything used in America, so you will not be able to receive it on an American radio.     DAB is still very much in its introductory stages, and although the price of receivers has fallen considerably, it has still not been adopted widely.

British radio stations do not identify themselves with call letters, but simply use their name: BBC Radio 2,  Classic Gold, etc.    Until the early 1970s the BBC had an official monopoly on radio broadcasting, although during the sixties several "pirate" stations set up transmitters on ships off-shore to circumvent the broadcasting laws. 

Independent Local Radio was officially sanctioned by the way of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (which also controls Independent TV), and stations started to go on air from 1973.   There was something of an explosion in local radio in the latter half of the 1980s, and many urban areas now have quite a number of stations, although some station formats which are common in the U.S. are completely absent in Britain.


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Re: Technical Issues
« Reply #4 on: June 03, 2005, 08:44:33 PM »
TELEVISION

North America is somewhat fortunate in that the same basic television system is used across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and most of the Caribbean islands.  Even many countries in central Latin America use the same technical standard.    In Europe, however, many countries developed their own standards when TV was in its infancy, and despite a certain amount of standardization since then, there is still a rather confusing range of systems in use, with varying degrees of compatibility.

There are standard designations allocated to the various world TV standards, and the American standard is known as System M.    The picture is comprised of 525 horizontal lines, scanned at a rate of 30 complete frames per second.   America was also the first country in the world to get a regular color service in the early 1950s, and the system used is commonly known by the acronym NTSC, which stands for National Television Standards Committee (strictly speaking, the NTSC standard covers the whole package, not just the color). 

By contrast, the current British standard is known as System I, and has a picture made up of 625 lines scanned at 25 frames per second.   Britain broadcasts the color portion of the picture using a system called PAL, or Phase Alternation by Line, although I'm sure you want to be spared the technical explanation of why it's called that!   

As you will no doubt have surmised, system M/NTSC and system I/PAL are not directly compatible.  By far the majority of TV receivers sold in the domestic American market are single-standard, so will be of no use for receiving off-air broadcasts in Britain.    The same goes for an American VCR, which will not be able to record British TV.

Many (but not all) TV sets now sold in Britain will receive only system I/PAL broadcasts off-air, but will also display system M/NTSC video signals when connected directly to a suitable VCR, DVD player, etc.    An increasing number of VCR's on the British market also incorporate an NTSC-playback facility to allow American VHS tapes to be viewed.    They do not, however, usually provide any facility to record in NTSC format, so you won't be able to bring an American video camera and record tapes to send home.    Machines which will do that are normally in at least the semi-pro category and going to be fairly expensiv, but at least with an NTSC-playback VCR and compatible TV you can have relatives and friends send tapes from the States and be able to watch them here.

Let's get down to some practical issues.  British TV antennas are connected using a coaxial plug & socket which you won't normally find in America:



The same type of connector is often used for FM radio antennas, so you might find two or more outlets like this in your house and will have to see how they're labeled (or work by trial and error -- it won't hurt anything if you try to use the wrong antenna, you'll just get a lousy picture).

America uses both VHF channels (2 through 13) and UHF channels (14 upwards) for TV.   British channels don't correspond to American channels in any way.  The old VHF channels (1 through 13) have not been used for 20 years, so everything now is on UHF (numbered 21 through 69).   

Back in the days of VHF TV people were used to referring to the channel numbers.  In London, for example, BBC was broadcast from Crystal Palace on channel 1 while ITV came from Croydon on channel 9.    These days, however, what most people here refer to as "channels" are in reality the numbered presets on the TV, which bear no resemblance to the actual channel numbers. 

Those of you already living here will know that we have a station called "Channel 4," even though it is not on ch. 4, and never has been!    It was so named because it was the fourth major network.

The reason I'm emphasizing this point is simply because the average person here does not refer to channel numbers anymore in the way that they are still used in America.     As with radio, British TV broadcast stations don't use call letters either, but just identify by name.

Stereo is now available on most transmitters using a system called NICAM (I won't even bother to expand the acronym on that one!).   

One area in which Britain can claim to have been at the forefront of development is Teletext, the service which started in the 1970s to send pages of text and very basic graphics on a variety of subjects, such as rolling news reports, weather forecasts, and so on.  The signal is sent using a method similar to that used for closed-captioning in the U.S. (a service which is also provided here, although just called "sub-titles").     Teletext reception is provided on most new TV sets these days, except at the very bottom end of the market.

DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television) has been rolling out over the last few years, and set-top boxes which connect between antenna and TV are readily available in the stores.  The system -- as you would probably expect -- is completely different to the digital services being broadcast in America.   Coverage is expanding, but not all stations are available in all areas yet.     

The government has been pushing for the existing analog (old-style) transmissions to end as soon as possible, and at the moment a closedown date of 2010 is being discussed.  There's nothing definite yet, however, and the take-up rate of digital services has not been as quick or as great as some people in the industry would have liked.  {*}

Although cable TV had some early adopters, mainly due to local reception problems in some towns, the systems did not take off nearly so quickly as in America, although most major cities do now have some sort of cable TV.   By contrast though, direct reception of satellite TV became much more popular here, and dishes sprouted from homes up and down the country from the 1980s onward.   

I won't go into a technical discourse on satellite reception here, as this section is already quite complex enough, and I think that anyone in the U.S. who would even contemplate bringing over a complete sat-TV system would probably already know enough about it anyway.    For everyone else, if you do get a satellite installation you'll be able to find some familiar stations, such as CNN, although they are "Europeanized" with local inserts and commercials, etc.

I should add a word about DVD players.  Apart from the video signal compatibility issue which we've already covered, I'm sure many people are already aware of the fact that DVDs have a region code, North America being region 1.   A single-region player sold for the British market will not play an American DVD, but it is quite possible to buy multi-region players in Britain, and to modify some single-region units with a simple programming sequence so that they will play region 1 DVDs.  With such a player and a TV which will accept NTSC signals, you can bring your collection of American DVDs and still be able to watch them.

Sorry if this section is somewhat confusing, but unfortunately the subject of world TV systems is a rather complex one.   If it's any consolation, it's actually simpler now than in the past to a degree..  Those old VHF broadcasts I mentioned for example, were to a  completely different standard than those used then and now on UHF!   If you go traveling in Continental Europe, or even just in Ireland, there are many other incompatibilitites to consider.

Edited to add:

{*}  The proposed schedule for analog shutdown is now known.  Please see reply #27.


« Last Edit: December 07, 2005, 05:34:03 PM by Paul_1966 »
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Re: Technical Issues
« Reply #5 on: July 17, 2005, 12:08:45 PM »
TV LICENSING

Yes, those rumors you may have heard about there being a television license in Britain are, unfortunately, quite true.

The law stipulates that you must obtain a license in order to receive any TV broadcasts, whether from a regular UHF transmission, cable, or satellite.   The fees have just gone up (yet again), and currently stand at £126.50 per year for color, or £42 per year if you only have a black-&-white set.   The license is per household, not per set, so you can have as many sets as you like in your house on the one license.

The official TV licensing website can be seen here.  (Be ready for some serious intimidation!)

www.tvlicensing.co.uk

Note that although the authorities don't go out of their way to present the full facts, the license is for the reception of TV signals, not the mere possession of a TV.   
If you genuinely have a TV stored but unconnected and unused, or you just have a set connected to a VCR or DVD player to watch pre-recorded tapes or discs, then you are not required to have a license.

At one time there was also a license for radio reception, but this was abolished in 1971.

Edited due to change in law.  Please see Reply #25 below.

« Last Edit: November 21, 2005, 02:35:09 PM by Paul_1966 »
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Re: Technical Issues
« Reply #6 on: July 17, 2005, 01:28:54 PM »
TELEPHONES

After getting to grips with the intricacies of international television, it might come as something of a relief to learn that the electrical characteristics of telephones don't pose a big problem.   There are some very minor differences in the audio-level specifications between America and Britain, but these differences are so small that they can be ignored for almost all practical purposes.

By the time Britain introduced Touchtone dialing, the American standard was already well established and was adopted here with no changes.  If you happen to have an old rotary-dial phone you like, that will work just fine here too (I have several old Western Electric #500 phones around the house, but of course I'm something of a telephone freak.... Er, I mean enthusiast!  ;D ).

Other than one or two other minor issues which I'll mention later, the only hurdle to overcome with a basic telephone is the different connector used in Britain.  The typical British telephone wall outlet looks like this:





The plug fitted to British phones is larger than the American modular plug, and has the latch on the side:




These connectors were introduced in the early 1980s, and are now almost universal.  In the unlikely event that you do happen to move into a house which still has an older type of connection, British Telecom will change it over to the modern standard for you. 

With the proliferation of American-style plugs (commonly called "RJ11" - from the original Bell System designation) on modems and other imported equipment, adapters are now widely available in stores which will let you connect your American phone cord to a British telephone socket. 

In fact the RJ11 is now very commonly used here at the telephone end of the connecting cord.   The one point to watch is that in some cases the plug is physically the same but British phones have them wired differently.   Thus if you try to use a British cord to plug straight into the back of an American phone, it may not work.   So long as you stick with the original American cord (or an equivalent RJ11-to-RJ11 replacement) and an adapter, you should have no problems.

(Note that all of the foregoing applies to a single, basic line only.  When it comes to office PBX and multi-line systems, there are all sorts of different configurations, just as in the U.S.A.)

I should point out that strictly speaking it is illegal to connect anything to the phone line which doesn't have the appropriate British/European approval marks.  In practice though,  people have been using non-approved imported equipment for years, so it's not something to be unduly concerned about (in fact 20-odd years ago it seemed as though there were more unapproved modems around than approved ones!).


ANSWERING MACHINES, FAXES, CORDLESS PHONES

Obviously all the above relating to the connection to the telephone line applies equally to these more complex devices, plus there is the added complication of needing power.  The general notes about voltage differences and running through converters at the top of this thread should answer any queries in that department, though of course whether it's actually worth bringing equipment with you is something which needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, plus of course whether you're particularly attached to certain pieces of equipment.   

Fax and answering machines will work fine through the appropriate adapters.  As you probably already know, the standard British ringing cadence uses a double burst:  Brrrr, Brrrr................. Brrrr, Brrrr................., etc.    (For the insatiably curious, the timing is actually 0.4 sec. on, 0.2 off, 0.4 on, then a 2-second pause before repeating, thus one whole cycle lasts 3 seconds.  By comparison in America the cycle is typically 6 seconds,  consisting of a 2-second ring followed by a 4-second pause.)

Some answering machines not designed specifically for the British market will count each burst as a separate ring while others will still count each double-ring as one.   It's hardly a major problem, but just something you should be aware of and check when setting the "number of rings" option.   

One other little point which I said I would mention earlier is the flash/recall button which is often found on combination telephone/fax/answering machines.   As in the U.S., recall is used here for 3-way calling, call waiting, and similar features, but the timing of the flash here is shorter.  Using the recall button on an American phone may actually cause a British telephone exchange to disconnect the call completely rather than just place it on hold.   

That means that if you have a unit with memories in which you have a button setup to do a recall-number sequence (e.g. to pick up a second call), you may not be able  to use that arrangement here.    You can still simulate the recall feature by just briefly flashing the hookswitch, however, so this is just a minor annoyance.

On the subject of cordless phones, you should be aware that the radio frequencies used by some North American units are not authorized for such use here.  Not only might you experience interference from other services, you could cause interference.  This is one case where it would certainly be best to leave the equipment behind and buy again once in the U.K.    (Note that I'm talking about a cordless phone connected to a landline here, not a cellphone.  Cellular phones are another matter entirely, and warrant a separate explanation at some later date.)

MODEMS

If you're bringing a computer with you, the modem in it will work just fine so long as you use the appropriate adapter to connect to a British phone jack.  Obviously any numbers set in your configuration won't work without changes.

Next post I'll cover some aspects of actually using the British telephone system.
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Re: Technical Issues
« Reply #7 on: July 23, 2005, 03:48:28 PM »
Let's move on to actually using the telephone in Britain.  Practical demonstrations were always fun at school, so we'll start with the supervisory tones, which are somewhat different than those used in America.   Click the links below for a sample of each.

Dial tone on the modern British network is similar to that in the U.S., so we'll skip that one and go straight to the distinctive British ring tone which, as you would expect, follows the double-burst ring cadence:

Ring tone


Busy tone, also known in Britain as an "engaged" signal, consists of just a single note at a slightly faster rate than the American version:

Busy tone


These days, dialing an invalid or a disconnected number will most often get you a recorded announcement ("The number you have dialed has not been recognized" being the most common one from BT).   Sometimes though, you might still hear the old "number unobtainable" tone which used to be employed widely.  It's just a plain continuous tone:

Number Unobtainable



Equipment engaged tone is another signal which used to be common but is now heard only rarely.   You may still encounter it on some networks, or when calling overseas, so it's worth knowing how it sounds.  It indicates that all circuits are busy and is similar to a busy signal but with alternate longer and shorter tones:

Equipment Engaged Tone

This tone serves a similar purpose to the reorder (or "fast busy") which can be heard in North America when all trunks are busy, although the American reorder is used for a wider range of situations.



NUMBERING

The numbering scheme in Britain has undergone several revisions in recent years.  As in America, there is an area code plus the local number, but the form these take is rather different.   For a start, the demographics of the U.K. (55 million people in an area about the same size as Wyoming)  mean that each area code serves a relatively small geographical area, typically up to about a 15-mile radius.    Both the area code and the local number are of variable length too.

In Britain, the digit zero is used as the prefix for a long-distance call, and unlike the "1"  in America, it has always been necessary to dial that zero when calling to another area code.    Thus it is the convention here to write the zero as part of the area code itself.

As the system stands at present, the area code (including the initial zero) may be 3, 4, or 5 digits while the local number which follows is 6, 7, or 8 digits in length.   All regular geographic area codes at the moment start 01... or 02....   The combination of area code plus local number totals 11 digits.  An example of each combination follows:

(020) 7222-1234
(0131) 236-9999
(01752) 221900

In practice, the area code may be written in parentheses, as above, or it may just be separated from the rest of the number with a dash or a space, e.g. 01752-221900.  Note also that while 7- and 8-digit numbers are split as shown, it is the convention to write a 6-digit local number as a single block of digits.

It is only in the last few years that 8-digit local numbers have been introduced, and at present there are just five areas which use them.  All adopted new area codes when switching to the new numbers.  With their area codes, these places are:

020   London
023   Portsmouth / Southampton
024   Coventry
028   Northern Ireland
029   Cardiff


Several urban areas have used 7-digit local numbers for a good many years (as did London until the change to 8-digits in 2000).    With their area codes, these cities are:

0121   Birmingham
0131   Edinburgh
0141   Glasgow
0151   Liverpool
0161   Manchester
0191   Newcastle

To this list must be added six more cities which have switched to 7-digit numbers more recently, again adopting the new area codes shown below when changing:

0113   Leeds
0114   Sheffield
0115   Nottingham
0116   Leicester
0117   Bristol
0118   Reading


Everywhere else in the country has an area code of the form 01xxx followed by a 6-digit number.   The list of such area codes runs into the hundreds, but here are a few examples:

01223  Cambridge
01463  Inverness
01752  Plymouth
01904  York


Note that overlay codes such a those now found in some American cities (i.e. more than one area code serves the same physical area) are not used here.     

Dialing a number is therefore fairly straightforward:  If you are calling from a telephone within the same area code, you need dial only the 6, 7, or 8 digits of the local number.  If calling to another area, you need to dial the full area code plus number.    If you are in any doubt, it is always possible to dial the full number even if you are calling from within the same area.

All of the above applies to regular landlines only.  Cellular phones have their own separate "area" codes in Britain, which we'll get to later.

It's also worth mentioning that the first "1" in the above area codes was inserted during an overhaul of the numbering system in 1995, so it's possible to see old signs from time to time which still show the earlier versions.   For example, Cambridge under the original system was 0223.     


LONDON NUMBERING CONFUSION

The smog which was once common in London may be a thing of the past, but many people are a little foggy when it comes to London's telephone numbers, so I'll dedicate a section here to explaining the confusion in the nation's capital.    You may want to skip this section on a first reading!

As London adopted its new 020 area code and 8-digit numbers only 5 years ago, signs showing the previous numbers are still far from rare.  In fact Londoners have had to go through three separate code/number alterations since 1990, so its worth summarizing the changes.

Originally, London had 7-digit local numbers and the shortest of all possible area codes, 01.    When the supply of numbers was running short, the city was split into two areas in 1990, each getting a new area code: 071 for inner London, 081 for outer London.    This meant that calls from central London to the outer suburbs, or vice versa, then had to be dialed with the appropriate area code.   These two area codes changed to 0171 and 0181  in the general renumbering which affected the whole country in 1995.

In 2000, however, London was put back into one area code, 020, and the local numbers were made up to 8 digits in length.  Thus calls within the capital could then be dialed without an area code once again, only this time with eight digits instead of seven.    To make the change as simple as possible for people to adopt, inner London numbers which had been in the 0171 area became 7xxx-xxxx, while outer London numbers, previously 0181,  became 8xxx-xxxx.     So, taking the original number 222-1234 (which is in central London) as an example, the changes went as follows:

Before 1990:   (01)  222-1234
1990 - 1995:      (071)  222-1234
1995 - 2000:     (0171)  222-1234
Since 2000:    (020)  7222-1234


Unfortunately, the series of changes has resulted in a lot of confusion as to where the area code finishes and the local number starts, and many people have gotten into the habit of writing London numbers as though there are still two separate area codes, which is no longer the case.

To continue using the above example, some people would now write the number  as (0207) 222-1234.  Dialing from outside London, it doesn't really matter since you need to dial all the digits anyway, but this incorrect grouping is especially confusing for non-Brits who have not followed all the changes and don't realize that to call that number from within London you now have to dial 7222-1234, not just 222-1234.

Of course, the whole object of switching to 8-digit numbers was to allow for expansion, and starting this summer there are now 3xxx-xxxx numbers being assigned in London.   


Next post I'll get to non-geographic and other "weird" numbers.
« Last Edit: July 23, 2005, 04:00:09 PM by Paul_1966 »
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Re: Technical Issues
« Reply #8 on: July 24, 2005, 02:54:29 PM »
Beyond the basic 01... and 02... numbers is a whole murky world of weird and wonderful services, unfortunately with some kind of scam attached to many of them.   

Let's start with the innocuous toll-free numbers though.  These operate in a similar way to 800 (and 888 etc.) numbers in America, where the call is completely free to the originator and the recipient picks up the tab.   

At the moment, there are three area codes which cover toll-free numbers in Britain: 0800, 0808, and 0500.     Dialing any number which starts with these codes will be free from a landline.    There are even some toll-free numbers which route directly to large American companies for overseas mail order, telephone, and other services.  For example, you can call AT&T's chargecard service from the U.K. by dialing 0800 890011 (be warned that the rates to use an AT&T chargecard from here are high though!).

We now need to take a small detour to examine the way calls are billed in this country.  In America the norm has been for local calls to be free (with some exceptions), but in the U.K.  local calls are charged just like any other.    With cellphone packages giving "free" minutes in recent years, landline tariffs have also appeared which offer a certain number of free local calls for a higher monthly fee, but basic service still applies a charge for each local call.  (In fact with falling long-distance rates, under many packages there is now no distinction between local and long-distance, and it costs the same to call across country as it does to call a neighbor.)

This charging of local calls led to the introduction in the 1980s of a kind of halfway house between a normal long-distance call and a toll-free call.     Calls to these numbers were billed to the caller at the normal local rate, even if the call was right across the country, with the recipient paying the balance.   The restructuring of the numbering system in 1995 put these numbers into the 0845 code, where they remain today.  To these have been added 0844 numbers, which were also intended to be at reduced rates, although the actual charge can vary.   Many "pay as you go" dial-up internet connections use 0844 numbers.   

As soon as you have dealings with any sort of large business or government department these days, you're also bound to run into 0870 and 0871 numbers.    These were set up as non-geographic numbers charged at the regular, national long-distance rate.   At first, it might seem as though they serve no useful purpose, although one legitimate use was to allow a call to be routed to different offices at different times of the day, or to allow a company to publish a single number but have callers from different parts of the country routed to different regional offices. 

Unfortunately, the 0870 numbers are now often being used as a money-making trick.  Regular long-distance rates have dropped drastically in recent years, especially for anyone using one of the many alternative long-distance services.   Even the basic BT package now on offer provides calling rates which are much lower than they were just a few short years ago.    These calling plans do not offer the same lower rates for calls to 0870 numbers, however.   In fact on an 0871 number you could be charged as much as 10 pence per minute, even though you might be getting a regular national call for under a penny a minute, or even for just a flat-rate connection charge. 

So although the 0870 numbers are advertised as "national rate," be warned that in reality they will almost certainly cost you much more to call.  The scam is that many people do not yet realize that the recipient of the call is often getting a cut of that higher tariff.    When some government department (e.g. the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency) switches from a regular number to an 0870 number, then makes you wade through their tedious menu system and sit on hold for ten minutes, you're paying directly into their funds all the time.       

Next in the list of "weird" numbers is the "personal numbering range."  These are also non-geographic numbers, starting with 070.   These are a recent addition to the selection of dubious numbers, and calls to these can be routed almost anywhere.  In fact people can set up an 070 number so that it routes to their home, office, or cellphone at different times.  The list of tariffs for calling these numbers is huge, some charging a flat-fee, others having a per-minute charge, but as with 0870 numbers you will rarely be able to call any of them at your normal low long-distance rates.  The charges may be only a few pence per minute, but use with caution nevertheless.      There is also a "corporate numbering" range using 05... codes which operates in a similar way.

Numbers with codes which start 09.... are the British equivalent of American 900 numbers, with the receiving end getting a substantial proportion of the call charge.  These numbers are common for phone-in competitions, sleazy "adult chat" lines, and a whole range of recorded announcements.  Even the telephone weather forecast lines -- at one time available as a normal call -- are now on these premium-rate numbers.    Unfortunately, government departments have also adopted them for some uses, including for visa application lines.    Some 09 numbers are charged at a fixed fee, while the most expensive can cost as much as £1.50 per minute and the companies running them will do everything to make the call last as long as possible.   Beware!   


Let's move on quickly to cellphone numbering.  As I mentioned earlier, in the U.K. cellphones operate with their own special "area" codes rather than being integrated into the normal codes as is the case in North America.    Cellphone and pager numbers start with 077, 078, or 079.   

You will see numbers written in various formats, e.g. 077x xxx-xxxx or  077xx xxx xxx.    Fortunately, this inconsistency is of little consequence this time, since you need to dial the full number when calling a cellphone, no matter where it is based.   It's also necessary to use the full area code plus number when making any call from a cellphone, even if it's to another cellphone within the same network.

Billing for cellular calls operates in a different way than the U.S. too, using the "caller pays" principle.   That means that there is no charge to receive a call on your cellphone (or no deduction from the free minutes), but the person making the call pays a much higher rate than for a regular landline call.   Rates vary depending upon the originating carrier and the network being called, but are well above normal landline rates and can be as much as 30 or 40 pence per minute.     Clearly then, that's one very good reason for cellular numbers being easily distinguishable from regular landline codes.     Although there is a greater acceptance of cellphones nowadays, this "caller pays" approach still makes some people balk at being given a cellular number to call.


Here then is a summary of how to work out the British telephone codes from the first few digits:

01xxx    Regular geographic area codes
02x            "             "        "       "

0500    Toll-free numbers

05xx    "Corporate" numbering, likely to cost more than a normal call.

070x    "Personal" numbering, also likely to be more expensive.

077x   Cellular & pager numbers.   Caller pays!
078x        "      "     "         "
079x        "      "     "         "

0800     Toll-free numbers
0808       "      "         "

084x    "Locall" numbers, but still likely to cost more than normal.
 
087x    "National rate" numbers, but also more expensive than normal.

09xx    Premium-rate numbers.  Can be very expensive.  Beware!

00     International call.



INTERNATIONAL CALLING

As noted above, 00 is the prefix to make an international call, equivalent to 011 in North America.   The prefix is followed by the country code, then the required area code and number, which of course will be determined by the country you are calling.   

The country code for the U.S.A. & Canada is 1, so to call back home you just need to dial 00 1 then the 3-digit area code and 7-digit local number.  For example, to call the weather report in Washington D.C. from Britain you would dial 00 1 202 936-1212.

At one time it was not possible to call American 800 numbers from overseas.  This is no longer the case, but you will be charged at normal international rates for the call, and in most cases you will get a recording (from the American end) warning you of this fact before the call is connected.   Note that some British alternate long-distance carriers have not yet caught up with the newer American toll-free codes (866 etc.) and may not allow calls to them.


To call into Britain from elsewhere in the world, you need to dial the international prefix for the country you're in, followed by the U.K. country code 44, followed by the U.K. area code and local number.  However, when dialing in to the U.K. you have to drop the initial zero from the area code.     Thus to call the London Transport recorded information line, (020) 7222-1234, from America you would dial 011 44 20 7222-1234.

Note that most carriers will not complete international calls into the U.K. using any of the "special" codes, such as 0800, 0845, 0870, etc.   Those that do sometimes apply a hefty surcharge, so be careful.   Pleading that you may need to call from outside Britain is actually a good way to get some companies and government agencies to give you a "proper" number to reach them instead of an 0870 one.  Once you have the regular number, you can then use it from within the U.K. as well.  (See above for why you would want to do that!)

To be continued....
« Last Edit: July 24, 2005, 03:05:53 PM by Paul_1966 »
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ALTERNATE CARRIERS

If you'd moved to Britain 25 years ago, then the choice of phone company was simple.   The network was state-controlled under the auspices of the G.P.O. (General Post Office), with only one or two rare exceptions due to quirks of history (e.g. the city of Kingston upon Hull had a privately owned system). 

In the early 1980s, however, the government broke up the G.P.O. monopoly, and British Telecom was formed to take over the privatized network.    For those old enough to remember, this all took place around the same time as the divestiture of the Bell System in the United States (though of course Ma Bell had always been a private company).

British Telecom soon had competition in the form of Mercury Communications, which started to provide an alternative long-distance service, and went on to set up their own payphones in certain strategic locations.    (Mercury was later taken over by Cable & Wireless.)

In the ensuing years growth has been huge, and there are now many companies competing for your custom, offering a bewildering array of different rates for various calls and services.     In the larger towns it's now possible to get basic phone service from a variety of phone companies, sometimes in conjunction with cable TV service.   

For a very large proportion of the country, however, BT is still the only option for providing the basic line.   You can still choose to use a different company for some or all outgoing calls by simply signing up for the appropriate service.   You then dial a carrier access code before the required number.  These codes are normally 3 or 4 digits in length, starting with "1" (e.g. 1260 or 1899).      These access codes are thus similar to the 10xxx carrier codes used in America, except that in the U.K. the default if you use no code is always your local phone company (usually BT). 

Some of the alternate carriers supply a small routing box which connects between the line and your telephone(s).    This box intercepts the numbers you dial and adds the access prefix where appropriate, sending local and toll-free calls directly to the line to go via BT while redirecting long-distance and overseas calls to their own service.    This means you can then just dial all numbers as they appear without having to worry about when to use the access prefix. 

There are even some companies which now provide a router for multiple carriers.  The box receives periodic updates of the different rates from several carriers, then automatically inserts the appropriate access code to send calls by the cheapest route, perhaps using company A for calls during the day, company B for the evening, and company C for international.    The one provider then groups all the calls from the various companies together so that you get just one bill from them (plus your local BT bill).

The miriad carriers changing rates almost daily has made the system very complicated to follow, but telephone calls are certainly cheap compared to just a few years ago.



OTHER NUMBERS & SERVICES

Before we leave the subject of numbering entirely, let's take a quick look at a few other useful numbers:

100       Operator assistance
112       Emergency (same as 999, but this is a new European number)
118xxx  Directory assistance 
123      Time
141       Withhold number
1471     Gives number of last incoming call
150       Customer service
151       Fault reports  (equivalent to American 611 in many places)
155       International operator
999       Emergency (equivalent to American 911)


One or two of these (e.g. 150) may not work from non-BT lines, but most are universal.   As in the States, asking an operator to place a call these days will result in the cost becoming astronomical compared to dialing direct.    With long-distance calls being so cheap now, it's not really worth even considering collect or person-to-person calls except in a dire emergency.


The British network supports caller ID, though you need to subscribe to a call features package which includes the service, plus of course you need an appropriate telephone.  The British system uses a different standard than North America, so the caller ID built into a American phone will not work here.

For those without caller ID, dialing 1471 will read back the number of the last incoming call (or tell you if the caller withheld his number, or if the number is not available for some other reason). 

By default, your number is sent on every call you make.  If you want to withhold your number on a certain call, then you just dial 141 before the number.    If you wish, you can have your number set private as standard, and then dial a different code (1470) to release your number on a call-by-call basis.  Note that having an unlisted number ("ex-directory" in British parlance) does not automatically do this; you need to request it explicitly.

Services such as call-waiting, call diversion, alarm calls, and all sorts of other options are also available here under various option packages, accessed using * and # number codes which, unfortunately, are completely different than those used in the U.S.


The directory assistance service needs some explanation.  Until recently it was all fairly simple with just a single number for U.K. inquiries and a separate number for international.   Then the market was "deregulated" and now we have dozens of competing companies, each with its own 6-digit number starting 118 (the original BT directory service is on 118500, for example). 

It's almost impossible to keep track of the best deal, since there are so many different tariffs and they change regularly.  One company might charge a 30 pence connection fee then 10 pence per minute.  Another might have only a 10 pence connection fee but then charge 15 pence per minute.   Some limit you to a certain number of searches per call, even if the search doesn't turn up the number.  Quite frankly, the whole directory system has been turned into a full-fledged joke of which P.T. Barnum would probably be quite proud.

One word of advice should you need to get a number from back home:  Don't bother going through the directory services here.    You could end up paying as much as £1.50 per minute!    It's much cheaper to just call directory assistance in America directly in the usual way, i.e. 00 1 (xxx) 555-1212.    Sometimes the phone company will try to block such calls, but in most cases if you try two or three times in a row you'll get through eventually.  Many of the alternate long-distance carriers let such calls through automatically.  Of course, BT and the other phone companies don't advertise the U.S. directory numbers, and rely on most people here having no idea that the 555-1212 number even exists.


Even the humble speaking clock has changed.  It used to be available on a normal local number in most places, and charged the same as a local call (you might even run into some older Londoners who call it "Tim,"  from the letters one dialed years ago to get the TIMe). 

These days, calling 123 on a BT line will cost you 20 pence, quite a bit more than a regular call.  Incredible as it may seem, it will probably be cheaper to call the time service back in your home town in America than to use the local British version, especially if you have a good international package!     

If you feel like going in for some real heavy-duty accuracy, you could even call the atomic-controlled clock run by the National Institute of Standards in Boulder, Colorado on (303) 499-7111.     :)

Next:  Cellphones
« Last Edit: July 24, 2005, 08:47:06 PM by Paul_1966 »
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CELLULAR PHONES

We've already discussed cellphone numbering and charging in Britain, but it seems as though the issue of compatibility between American phones and the U.K. network is one which crops up regularly.  There is also a certain amount of confusion surrounding terms such as dual-band and tri-band.

Let's start by making it clear that the following discussion relates to GSM type cellphones.  GSM stands for Global System for Mobile communications, a standard which originated in Europe, not appearing in the United States until later.   T-Mobile and Cingular/AT&T are the main network users of GSM in the U.S.A. at present.  Cellphones designed for other U.S. standards such as ADC (American Digital Cellular) or AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) are quite useless in Britain.

There are four different frequency bands currently in use for GSM, commonly referred to as the 850, 900, 1800, and 1900 megahertz bands.  In reality each of these bands actually comprises two blocks of channels, one block providing the mobile-to-base links and the other base-to-mobile.    These numbers are just convenient round reference points, as the actual frequencies extend over a fairly wide range.  For anybody interested in such things, the allocations are as follows:

850 band:    824 - 849 MHz & 869 - 894 MHz
900 band:    880 - 915 MHz & 925 - 960 MHz
1800 band:  1710 - 1785 MHz & 1805 - 1880 MHz
1900 band:  1850 - 1910 MHz & 1930 - 1990 MHz.

You might notice that there's a small overlap between some of the bands, but that's of no real consequence (and the overlaps are between frequencies which are going in opposite directions between the tower and your phone anyway).      Don't let this lot worry you if it doesn't make sense -- Just accept that there are four different frequency bands in use and a phone designed to operate on one band will not work on another. 

In the very simplest of terms, America uses the 850 and 1900 bands while Britain uses 900 and 1800.

More specifically, when GSM service started in the U.K., it employed the 900 band, and this is the band which carries the majority of cellular traffic here.    As service expanded, the 1800 band was brought into use as well, hence the appearance of dual-band phones to provide maximum possible coverage.     The 900 and 1800 bands are also used in most other European countries.

When GSM first arrived in America, however, it was assigned the 1900 band.   This band is also used in Canada and much of Latin America.    With international travel as it is today, this led to the introduction of tri-band phones, which will operate on the 900, 1800, and 1900 bands.  As you would expect, the cellphone automatically selects the 900 or 1800 band in Europe and switches to 1900 in North America.

More recently, however, America has also started to use the 850 band for GSM service to expand coverage.   This band is especially suited to more rural areas, as the lower frequencies make it easier to obtain good coverage with more widely spaced cell towers (for much the same reasons why VHF TV stations generally cover a wider area than UHF stations).

This is all leading to a certain complication in terminology, because a dual-band phone designed for the British market will cover 900 and 1800, whereas a dual-band phone in America can mean it covers 1900 and 850.    It could also mean that it covers the 1900 American band plus the 900 European band. 

In other words, you really need to check your existing phone or any proposed purchase carefully to see which bands it actually covers.   The instruction books for many British phones, for examples, will say something like "Suitable for use on the GSM 900 and GSM 1800 services." 

You absolutely need 1900 for the existing GSM service in American cities, and 900 for use in Britain.  For best coverage in the U.K., 1800 has gradually become far more important too, so a tri-band 900/1800/1900 unit is about the minimum recommended phone these days.

If you really want to cover all bases, there are  now quad-band phones on the market which will give the maximum possible coverage anywhere in the world.    As use of the 850 band for GSM is set to grow in America, this might be a consideration if you are planning on buying a new phone in the future and taking regular trips back home.

By the way, although the 850 band is relatively new for GSM service, it has already been in use for other cellular systems for a good many years.   In fact 850 was used by the very first analog cellular phones in America (AMPS) back in 1983.   In part, it's the closure of some of these older networks which is now allowing 850 to be used for GSM service.

(The 850 cellular band actually uses frequencies which were formerly assigned to TV channels 73 through 83, for those who can remember when the channels went up that high!)


Having selected a phone which covers the appropriate bands, you will also need the appropriate charger.  As we've already covered power supplies and chargers in detail earlier in this thread, and as many modern cellphone chargers will automatically adapt to 120 or 240V power anyway, I won't go into the details again.


With the question of the phone itself out of the way, the next task is to make sure that you can obtain service in all the places you wish to go.   Many cellphone providers offer international roaming facilities which will enable you to make and receive calls on the networks in other countries.    There are so many variations here, and changes occur so frequently that the best advice is to simply ask your existing provider about overseas roaming. 

While using the roaming agreement might be acceptable for a brief vacation, be warned that the charges can be very high.   In fact under some plans if you were in London with, say, a New York based cellphone and you made a call to a London number, you could end up being charged for two international calls as the system routes your intra-London call all the way to America and back!     Don't be afraid to ask some awkward questions of your provider about just how much it will cost you to use roaming.

For longer or permanent stays you'll want to obtain service with a British network.  As you're no doubt aware, GSM phones use a small SIM card which slots into the phone.  The SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) holds the relevant details about your service and phone number, so giving your phone a new identity is as simple as replacing the card.   If you travel regularly between countries, you may even want to keep two contracts and just switch SIM cards on the plane.   Be sure to check that the phone you have bought is not "locked" into a specific network, otherwise you may not be able to use it over here.   

You could just decide it's easier to keep your existing American phone for use in the States and then buy a dual-band British version to use over here.  Both contract and pay-as-you-go packages are widely available, again with tariffs and packages which change at such an alarming rate these days that anything quoted is likely to be out-of-date by the end of the week. 



PAYPHONES

To finish off, for anybody who doesn't like cellphones (more commonly called "mobile phones" here, by the way), it is still possible to find public payphones, although the number has diminished somewhat in more recent years, especially outside of the cities.

Alas, the traditional red British phone box is something of a rarity now, but payphones can be found in the more modern glass and steel cabinets which accept coins or cards.  Prepaid phone cards can be bought in many convenience stores and corner shops, such as the traditional British "Newsagent."    Be warned that the cost of using a payphone has escalated dramatically in recent years though.   If using coins, the minimum charge is now 30 pence from BT payphones.  The modern phones have a display which shows how much money remains as the call progresses, and the balance diminishes at a frightening rate for a long-distance daytime call!     There are even internet terminal phones now, in which you can send an e-mail or access a webpage, although it's not particularly cheap, as you might expect.

And that, I think, about wraps it up for telephones!

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You should really print this into a nice handy book and sell it.  Thanks though, very helpful.


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Wow!  :D
Plans on hold 'cuz Brexit


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Wow is right!!!  I'll be printing this off myself!  Thanks so much Paul - this is an amazing wealth of information.

~Liza
"Be not the slave of your own past - plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with a new power, with an advanced experience, that shall explain and overlook the old."  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


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Glad it helps some.   I threw some of those posts together rather quickly, but I hope I've covered the most important aspects of each topic. 

I'll add anything to this thread as and when the subject arises, or when I think of something else which might be of interest.

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Dreaming of one who truly is La plus belle pour aller danser.


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