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  Analogue TV switch-off will not be as easy as in Berlin

Analogue switch-off refers to the time when, subject to adequate take up of less spectrum-hungry digital TV services, public service broadcasters will be allowed to save costs and reduce carbon impact by swiching off terrestrial analogue TV transmissions and release the spectrum for other purposes.

Berlin was the first city to achieve switch off, largely due to its substantial reliance on cable and satellite, rather than terrestrial, transmission for TV.

  Most countries assume that analogue TV switchoff can occur when somewhere above 95% of a population has access to digital TV with both adequate local reception of digital transmissions and widespread availability of affordable Set Top Boxes or Integrated TVs.

However many are now questioning the sufficiency of this criterion because many households have multiple analogue TV receivers and no current digital soluton is yet cost-competitive with low-cost analogue receivers and VCRs.

There are three problem areas:

  • broadcasters - who have to achieve adequate signal reach which, depending on the target population coverage, can be prohibitively expensive in areas of low population density and, even for terrestrial transmission, often requires the user to upgrade the aerial;
  • users - who have to buy or rent a suitable Set Top Box or Integrated TV to allow their principal TV to receive the digital transmissions, which involves additional expense, although this is often subsidised where Pay TV services are also purchased;
  • sets - for every principal TV in the home, there are often two or three other analogue sets, a VCR, and a PC with integrated tuner, all of which depend on analogue transmissions, often using a low performance set top aerial incapable of achieving adequate signal stregth for digital terestrail reception.
  Dedicated analogue TVs continue to be the main choice for almost all people buying sets. They have got used to having a range of complementary boxes - whether VCR, Set Top Box, or DVD Player - so are unlikely to insist on the Integrated Set favoured by some suppliers.

Governments see digital TV as a way to reduce government costs and improve education by providing services via e-Mail and the Internet. This potential to reduce government costs, the avoided costs of analogue broadcasting, and the perceived value of the spectrum release make digital TV take-up important. However progress relies on consumers believing that digital TV is so compelling that they have to upgrade more quickly than the usual 7-year cycle for main sets. In practice, set top box sales and flat panel TVs with integrated digital tuners have flourished but are not developing as quickly as sales of secondary analogue receivers creating an increasing number of non-digital sets.

None of the digital TV distribution methods can guarantee access to everyone. Cable is only cost-effective in areas of high user density; Satellite, due to its location near the horizon, may not be visible to many dishes located in valleys or on the "wrong" side of tower blocks or other obstructions; Terrestrial is not cost-effective in areas of very low population density and xDSL upgrades to copper telephone lines add little since they are effective only within a few miles of the telephone exchange and it is not yet cost-effective to take broadband fibre-optic cables into areas of low population density.

A combination of cable, satellite and terrestrial TV can achieve the desired coverage and platform competition can be achieved between at least two of the platforms in most areas, although satellite's cost per viewer is so low that some form of subsidy may be required to sustain competition in marginal areas. The "secondary set" problem remains. Low cost set top boxes receiving a free to air basic digital service will help in areas of good coverage, but costs and aerial limitations remain an issue.

It is interesting to reflect on whether or not other platforms, whether Internet PC, DVD player, Games Console, or 3G handset could achieve faster and higher penetration rates. The DVD player and modern Games consoles like PlayStation3 and X-Box360, contain very similar technology to that required for digital TV playback leading to speculation that incorporating a digital TV tuner could be an attractive proposition. Even if this opportunity appears to have been missed, maybe rapid penetration of wireless-enabled PDAs, using WiFi or even WiMax, will come to the rescue.

  The value of the released spectrum is nowhere near the level set by 3G auctions in 2000. Rather than expensive extension of the terrestrial digital TV network, some of the cellphone base station network could be used to relay "free to view" channels into areas without satellite coverage. Concerns about universal Internet access might be better served by reliance on LTE evolution of the 3G or WiMax mobile wireless networks, although - whichever routes are adopted - 2012 seems a premature date for achieving analogue TV switch-off.
  Our Digital Commerce Experts Network is dedicated to exploring the key issues related to developments in digital commerce and entertainment. This involves projecting the evolution of the competitive platforms - games consoles, mobile handsets, PC, and TV, identifying popular applications and understanding revenue models and valuations.
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