The great leap forward 

14 June 2001 tbs.pm/1920

Imagine a place where digital terrestrial television is yet to be introduced. Imagine further that all analogue transmitters are to be switched off about one year later.

In addition to that, imagine that the broad population had hardly been informed about it until the start of the transition. This is not fiction. This is actually happening in Berlin. Can you imagine the implications?

Compared to other big European countries, Germany’s television market is in a somewhat unique situation. Despite the use of both VHF and UHF, Germany is suffering of a lack of frequencies due to the high number of neighbouring countries and the use of UHF channels 60 to 69 for military applications, leaving space for one national and two regionalised public services only.

To receive commercial stations via antenna today you have to live in or near mid-sized cities – at least – where low-power frequencies enable the broadcasting of the most important commercial channels RTL and SAT.1, and if you are lucky, transmitters with even lower power allowing the noisy reception of smaller commercial channels like VOX.

As a consequence, to enable a politically-required broad coverage of commercial channels a state subsidised build-up of the cable network started in the early 1980s, followed by the success of analogue direct-to-home satellite reception via Astra in the early 1990s.

This combined with the competition of the federal states and their media authorities in licensing commercial stations created a situation where dozens of public and commercial channels struggle for the attention of the audience, giving almost no chance to pay TV which is still struggling to reach break-even point.

As a direct result, 55.3% of the primary TV sets are connected to cable, 35.9% are fed via satellite, and a mere 8.8% rely on terrestrial reception only (numbers according to Infratest Burke, 1999-12-31, and tendency for terrestrial is falling).

Even if you consider that most second or third sets are used for terrestrial reception or many satellite users still have a terrestrial antenna to get regional magazines not available via satellite, those figures show that terrestrial broadcasting became too expensive in relation to the number of users and available channels.

Although the figures for terrestrial reception are declining there is strong interest in an attractive terrestrial service in competition to cable and satellite both from public and commercial stations.

In contrary to most other places in the world, the channels have to pay the cable operator for the distribution if they have been selected by the federal state media authority to get one of the roughly three dozen places, a relict of the state cable monopoly in the 1980s.

Furthermore, many viewers living in flats cannot switch to satellite, and the private cable companies claim an unfair subsidy of DVB-T and threaten initiation of an investigation by the European Commission, concealing that the cable business was kick-started by the taxpayer in the 1980s.

However, a simple multichannel offering for fixed receivers as in the UK would not attract enough viewers in Germany because they are already served well by cable and satellite (more than 90%).

In contrary to that, portable and mobile reception with a small antenna would be a unique feature. All this leads to the following plan for the introduction of DVB-T in Germany:

  • single frequency networks with a data rate of around 13.3 Mbit/s each, sufficient for 4 channels
  • use of VHF and UHF; in VHF, allocation for digital radio (DAB) has priority over DVB-T, in UHF, try to allocate three channels above channel 60 for additional transition capacity
  • portable indoor reception within the core zone, portable outdoor reception in suburbs, fixed antenna reception in rural areas, but no full coverage of the country; mobile reception at low to mid speeds in the core area as a desirable side-effect
  • during introduction at least 8 to 12 channels, after full build-up at least 20 channels available, all free-to-air; pay TV as an option is to be considered later if ever
  • rather hard switchover starting in single conurbation areas with a short simulcast time of analogue and digital for only one year with some transition phases (1: public stations stay analogue, commercial stations drop analogue in favour of provisional common digital packets of public and commercial; 2: public stations move to weaker analogue frequencies to enable more digital packets; 3: end of analogue transmission with some optimisation of digital coverage; 4: further reorganisation and optimisation after revision of the Stockholm 1961 frequency plan from the year 2005 on)
  • end of transition in all of Germany in 2010

After some years of experiments with different technical parameters on low-power transmitters in Northern Germany, Berlin, Cologne, and Munich, an agreement between the media supervision authority of Berlin and Brandenburg and public and commercial broadcasters was signed on 2002-02-13 to start the terrestrial transition in Berlin and Brandenburg in autumn 2002 and to stop analogue simulcast during the consumer electronics fair Internationale Funkausstellung in August/September 2003.

Berlin was selected because of the wealth of co-ordinated frequencies which are a heritage of the cold war (three frequencies in the west, two frequencies plus one unused in the east, four low-power frequencies for the allied occupation powers, etc.).

In a first step on 2002-10-31, the channels 5 and 44 (once carrying East German Television 1 and 2) were cleared for one public and one commercial packet each.

On 2003-02-28, the five commercial stations in Berlin will stop their analogue transmission while the public analogue stations move to low-power channels, thus creating more space for packets on high-power frequencies, until the final analogue plug will be pulled in summer 2003.

But only if the terrestrial audience (around 150,000 households plus about 90,000 “second” sets) is willing to buy DVB-T set-top-boxes for EUR200 each. So far the transition was discussed among technicians and politicians only. Besides hobbyists who monitored the development via the internet pages of the experimental projects and some newspaper notes, the broad public was told only in October 2002.

The campaign “DVB-T: The EverywhereTelevision.” already showed some success among technical freaks: many shops were sold out as if the final analogue switch-off was yesterday. But what about the casual viewer who manages to get around short information films about the transition? What about the old lady who still thinks that “digital TV” means “pay-TV” if at all?

Some landlord companies were already trying to spread false information about the digital transition, claiming that the old aerial installation of the houses were not suitable to receive digital TV or even pretend that the analogue switch-off means the end of terrestrial TV at all and that a switch to cable is required (with higher rents, of course).

That keeps the local tenant protection organisations very busy with spreading counterinformation. Another problem are those who are on welfare. For those who just can’t afford to spend EUR200 for the simplest STB there are plans for subsidised devices from the welfare office or payment by instalments (EUR5/month), intended from February 2003 on.

Even if all of this seems to be planned well, the hot phase with potentially lots of anger has not started yet, especially when consumers realise that they have to spend EUR200 for every TV set or video recorder they want to continue to operate as used to after September 2003.

The prices may drop until then, but it will still be expensive to upgrade more than one device. And there is still a lack of sets with integrated DVB-T reception if the old TV refuses to reach the digital age by final breakdown.

Because of the huge risks the transition in other parts of Germany is postponed to see what’s happening in Berlin.

A failure in the capital of the biggest economy in Europe would be even more disastrous for DVB-T than the pay-TV insolvencies of ITV Digital in the UK and Queiro in Spain, as it would be the second big introduction scenario to have failed to work.

It’s doubtful whether there will ever be a Plan C.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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