The deadline for the completion of analog switch-off is approaching in many countries. In Europe, the European Commission has recommended that its Member States complete the digital switchover by 2012, while in the United States, the government has imposed an analog switch-off date of Feb. 17, 2009.
As a result, many countries are in the process of planning for the transition to digital. In some countries, especially in Eastern Europe, governments have announced digital terrestrial television (DTT) launch dates, while countries with sizeable DTT penetration have begun announcing analog switch-off (ASO) plans.
But terminating the analog terrestrial platform is not easy. Ending analog services can have dire consequences if viewers are not adequately prepared and lose access to television programs. Careful planning is necessary and must involve the entire broadcast industry. Already, some lessons can be learned from countries that have either completed or begun the ASO process.
In Europe, Luxembourg became the first country to complete analog switch-off in September 2005, followed by the Netherlands in December 2006. Among the six countries that have completed the process, few had a sizeable proportion of households that depend on the analog terrestrial platform for their main television viewing. Rather, most are highly cabled countries — Andorra, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Or, in the case of Sweden and Finland, they have adopted aggressive ASO targets.
Another six countries have begun and, in some cases, nearly completed the ASO process. They represent a variety of television markets across Europe, from those with a 50 percent or greater dependency on the terrestrial platform (e.g., the Czech Republic, Italy and the UK), to those with a small number of terrestrially dependent households (e.g., Austria, Germany and Norway).
Based on the transition activities to date, two strategies have emerged. In the national switch-off strategy, analog services are ended simultaneously across the whole country, while in the phased switch-off strategy, analog services are turned off region-by-region over a period of time based on an agreed timetable.
The adoption of the national switch-off strategy allows all viewers to simultaneously benefit from the advantages of digital switchover, as viewers are treated equally and given the same access to services but equally all suffer from the need to equip for digital. However, this strategy can only be adopted after DTT services have been launched and made available to all viewers.
The adoption of the phased switch-off strategy allows those responsible for the process to spread out the costs and efforts of digitalization over a given period of time. The lessons learned in one region can be used to improve the process in another region. Or inversely, should something go wrong, the damage is limited to a single region. In addition, the released frequencies can be reused in a neighboring region in order to increase its DTT coverage and expand the DTT service offering.
The ASO roadmap will detail the number of phases necessary to complete the process as well as the speed at which switch-off can occur. In Sweden, the ASO process consisted of five phases between September 2005 and October 2007. In the UK, the 14-phase process will last from 2008 to 2012. Because the technology choices made at the time of the first phase will determine the technology status for the entire switchover process, a slow process beginning too early could hinder the introduction of new technology and services.
The ASO strategy adopted will depend on such factors as the number of households that rely on the terrestrial television platform for their primary television reception, the speed at which resources can be made available to complete the project, the ability to provide full DTT coverage prior to switch-off and, in some cases, the approach adopted for the launch of DTT services.
Viewers adequately prepared for analog termination will not notice when analog terrestrial services end. Reaching this level of readiness requires high investment in communication campaigns to ensure that viewers are armed with such information as the date when analog terrestrial television will end and how to access alternative television platforms. Generally, communication campaigns have included both national and regional components and have also targeted third parties, such as the media and retailers, as an additional means to reach viewers.
At a national level, general information on what will happen when and how to become prepared must be made available to viewers. In some countries, a mascot has been used to serve as a guide for viewers in the ASO process, such as the robot Digit Al seen in many of the advertisements in the UK. Other tools have included Web sites, advertisements in national media (print and television), direct mail and call centers.
At a regional level, area-specific information is made available such as the dates and time for switch-off, maps showcasing the location of a given analog transmitter to be shut off, and changes made to the frequency channels used. These campaigns often mirror the branding used at the national level.
Viewer preparation for the digital switchover has been eased with the increased proliferation of television sets with an integrated digital tuner, which account for well over half of all television sets sold in certain markets. Additionally, the governments in France and Italy have mandated digital tuners in all television sets, applicable since March 2008 in France and as of June 2009 in Italy.
While the cost of digital switchover will vary between countries, sufficient resources must be available to support communication and marketing activities and help prepare vulnerable segments of the population. In the UK, €709 million has been set aside to provide assistance to an estimated 7 million eligible households. This is in addition to the €236 million that will be spent on communications activities leading up to analog switch-off. In France, the government has already budgeted €140 million to help low-income households transition to digital television.
A different approach has been used in Italy, where all households, regardless of their income, have benefited from government subsidies to purchase digital receivers. In the United States, all households are eligible to receive two €31 coupons to use toward the purchase of digital converter boxes.
But viewers are not the only beneficiaries of government support. Broadcasters and network operators have benefited from grants, temporary suspensions of frequency usage fees, increases in viewer television license fees and interest-free loans. This support has permitted broadcasters to fund the launch of DTT platforms, provide new content, and offset the cost of simultaneously transmitting analog and digital services. Some of this aid has also enabled broadcasters to finance viewer aid schemes, as is the case in the UK.
In Germany, national regulators provided commercial broadcasters with a subsidy to encourage their participation on the DTT platform, although the European Commission has declared such aid contrary to its rules governing state aid. The commission has been vigilant in ensuring that its rules governing competition and platform neutrality are observed. Only subsidies that can be used across all television platforms are permitted.
Ultimately, analog switch-off is an important policy decision that requires the full support of the entire broadcast industry and strong leadership from the government to affirm the process. Without such support and leadership, a successful switchover will be difficult to achieve.
Governments must put in place the necessary legislative framework to allow for the launch of DTT services to replace the existing analog platform. They must ensure sufficient financial resources are made available to support communication campaigns and assist vulnerable viewers. And they must bring together broadcasters, network operators, manufacturers, and retailers to roll-out digital networks, launch digital replacement services and make the necessary receiving equipment available.
Already governments are facing pressure to end analog terrestrial broadcasting. Some service providers view ASO as an opportunity to acquire access to frequencies traditionally reserved for broadcasters and have begun to lobby governments. Such activity will only intensify as ASO approaches.
Natalie Mouyal is communications officer at DigiTAG, The Digital Terrestrial Action Group.