German digital TV revolution takes hold
8 November 2004 , HAMBURG - Sales of a new type of set-top box for televisions are booming in Germany as free digital TV transmissions spread across the country, to the annoyance of cable TV companies. The consumer electronics industry forecasts total sales of 1.1 million of the set-top boxes by the end of 2004. The boxes receive 24 free-to-air TV channels broadcast on Europe's new DVB-T standard. The signals will continue to come from the television towers that are landmarks in many German cities, and can
8 November 2004
HAMBURG - Sales of a new type of set-top box for televisions are booming in Germany as free digital TV transmissions spread across the country, to the annoyance of cable TV companies.
The consumer electronics industry forecasts total sales of 1.1 million of the set-top boxes by the end of 2004. The boxes receive 24 free-to-air TV channels broadcast on Europe's new DVB-T standard.
The signals will continue to come from the television towers that are landmarks in many German cities, and can be picked up by traditional H-shaped antennas on the roofs of buildings, or often by indoor aerials in rooms.
The difference is in the way the signals are made up.
DVB-T, standing for "digital video broadcasting, terrestrial", is a way of squeezing more information into one channel. Whereas analogue signals refresh half of a European TV image 50 times a second, DVB-T only replaces the bits of a moving picture that need changing.
That reduces the amount of data to transmit, meaning four programmes can be crammed into a channel, or "multiplex", previously used for one. The set-top box "unscrambles" the compressed signals so they can be seen on a traditional TV set.
The broadcasts went on air Monday in Germany's biggest urban sprawl, the Ruhrgebiet, stretching from Dusseldorf to Dortmund. They began two years ago in the capital Berlin and reached Frankfurt in October.
Digital terrestrial broadcasting (DTT), as it is sometimes known, has been around longer in Britain, where it goes by the name "Freeview" and reaches more than 3 million viewers. Finland (400,000 households) and Sweden also have a head start.
But Germany has been more aggressive than other nations in its conversion, switching off the old analogue signals after just a few months in each area of the country during the rolling change-over.
The success of the new technology could spell trouble for cable companies elsewhere in the world. Some analysts are suggesting cable is a dying industry. However heavily cabled Germany could prove one of the toughest markets to break into.
The Entertainment Electronics Association GFU says that as of this week, 38 million of Germany's 80 million people are within range of DVB-T. GFU spokesman Roland Stehle said DVB-T was not so much a threat to cable and satellite as a complementary service.
"Thanks to digitalization, you are getting a level playing field," he said.
Only 6 to 8 percent of German households currently receive terrestrial signals of any sort. The rest are subscribed to cable (52 percent) or own satellite dishes (40 percent).
Initially consumers were wary of the new plug-and-play DVB-T devices, with prices starting at EUR 200, but as prices slip below EUR 100, word has spread that they offer escape from perpetually paying EUR 11 or more a month to cable companies.
KDG, the main cable television company in Germany, has cried foul at what it contends is unfair, government-subsidised competition.
But the cable providers have denied in recent weeks that significant numbers of customers have cancelled their cable contracts and switched to free viewing. Newspapers have suggested this is because many contracts are long term and for entire apartment blocks.
Stehle said the shifts in Berlin over the past two years had been less than feared by the cable industry.
"In some cases, the publicity about the change even prompted people to get themselves newly connected to cable to avoid any bother," he said.
Subject: German news