France goes HD, becomes latest country to upgrade terrestrial TV service
The changes are being partially prompted by the need to clear the 700 MHz frequency band, - currently used by terrestrial TV - for mobile broadband services by the end of the decade and the growing desire of viewers to watch programmes in HD.
From Tuesday, digital terrestrial TV in the country will be offered in HD following an overnight reconfiguration of the platform which sees standard definition channels being removed. The French system uses DVB-T with MPEG4/AVC, so is unable to accommodate as many HD channels as it could have done had it changed to the newer DVB-T2 standard, however remaining with DVB-T ensures a greater number of viewers can keep watching using their existing equipment.
Viewers are being asked to retune, although in Ile De France (Paris region) and Rhône-Alpes, 700 MHz clearance will mean that some services may not be available for a few days, according to France's CSA, who also confirm that the 700MHz band can be used by mobile network operators in Ile De France from Tuesday and the rest of France from late 2017 through 2019.
For viewers in rural areas, rather than provide a network of relay transmitters with the main terrestrial TV channels as in common in the UK, two free-to-view satellite services are available: TNTSAT and Fransat. Both require a viewing card, but no on-going payment to watch the terrestrial channels via satellite. There have been reports from disgruntled viewers in rural areas who say they've got to pay extra to buy a replacement satellite receiver that's compatible with the new service, and that perfectly good equipment is being thrown away. Satellite receivers cost between €100-150, compared to new terrestrial receivers, that won't work in many rural areas, which are available from €25, according to Ouest-France. Satellite users will switch to the new HD service on 25th April.
France isn't the only country undergoing major changes to its terrestrial TV service in Europe. Here's a selection of what's happening elsewhere:
The current digital terrestrial TV service will be closed in stages between 2017 and 2019. From 31st May 2016, there will be an advance network in selected urban areas with an initial multiplex of six HD channels: Das Erste (ARD), ZDF, RTL, ProSieben, SAT.1 and VOX, simulcasting with the existing SD service.
The advance network will be available in Bremen/Unterweser, Hamburg/Lübeck, Kiel, Rostock, Schwerin, Hannover/Braunschweig, Magdeburg, Berlin/Potsdam, Jena, Leipzig/Halle, Düsseldorf/Rhein/Ruhr, Köln [Cologne]/Bonn/Aachen, Rhein/Main, Saarbrücken, Baden-Baden, Stuttgart, Nürnberg und München [Munich] / Südbayern [South Bavaria].
The Alpine country is in the middle of transferring from the original DVB-T standard to DVB-T2. Whereas the DVB-T service only offered a handful of channels in standard definition, the new DVB-T2 service offers up to 40 channels, with some in HD.
The new service is known as SimpliTV and uses card-less encryption technology - i.e. no physical smartcard is required. Viewers have to register their device to de-encrypt the main national channels, which they can then watch without extra cost. Additional commercial services are subject to a monthly subscription fee.
At the present time, Austrian Multiplex B is being in the process of being transferred from DVB-T to DVB-T2, with the region around Salzburg next to switch on the 19th April. This leaves just Austrian Multiplex A in the old free-to-view DVB-T standard, carrying the main two Austrian TV channels ORF1 and 2 in standard definition. This arrangement is expected to cease in 2017, which will mean that viewers over the border in southern Bavaria will lose access to ORF. The ORF channels were very popular in Bavaria, where the Austrian channels often showed the some programmes as German commercial channels, but without adverts.
Terrestrial TV is hardly used in Belgium; attempts to set up a DVB-T2 pay TV service failed. Both Flemish and France speaking parts of Belgium have their own digital multiplexes, with viewers in the middle able to receive both of them. Only a handful of channels are available, and these have already been moved out of the 700MHz frequency band.
Digital terrestrial TV is being transferred to the new DVB-T2 standard alongside 700MHz clearance. Three transitional DVB-T2 multiplexes are expected to start later in 2016. The transition is due to be complete by 2021.
The Republic of Ireland has a two multiplex terrestrial TV service called Saorview, with a mixture of HD and SD services on a free-to-air basis using DVB-T with MPEG4/AVC (like France). In some areas, there will be frequency changes out of the 700MHz frequency band by the end of the decade, which will require some householders to retune and/or make changes to their aerials. No major shake-up is planned.
Existing licences for digital terrestrial TV are due to end in 2017. The Netherlands is planning to use this opportunity to award new licences for broadcasting in DVB-T2. Current incumbent KPN who operate the Digitenne pay TV platform want to continue offering a terrestrial TV service. The transition to DVB-T2 and clearance of TV from the 700MHz band is due to take place between 2017 and 2019.
The current digital terrestrial TV service in the Netherlands consists of the main public channels on a free-to-air basis, with the remaining channels offered as part of the Digitenne pay TV service. All services are offered in standard definition, but Dutch public broadcaster NPO wants to offer them in HD after 2017; their services are already offered in HD on other TV platforms.
Depending on location, four or five channels are available in standard definition from Switzerland's public service broadcaster. Which channels can be received depends on where in the country you are: the northern and eastern part of the country is served by the German language Swiss TV service, the west by the French service and the south by the Italian language service. There are no plans to move to DVB-T2 and no plans to move terrestrial broadcasts to HD. Apart from the odd frequency change as part of "DVB-T optimisation" between now and 2018, 700 MHz clearance is unlikely to be of major concern.
There are two major developments that will affect Freeview:
At the end of 2017, the first frequency changes to Freeview are expected. By the end of March 2020, Freeview will have moved out of the 700MHz frequency range. Multiplexes COM7 and COM8, which currently carry a number of HD channels including BBC Four HD, Al Jazeera HD and QVC's HD channels will close. As a result, the remaining network of six multiplexes will need to absorb these channels.
Less has been said about this development, but major broadcasters are moving towards HD only broadcasts. This would leave older Freeview boxes incompatible with most or all services within the next five years.
If all six national multiplexes moved to DVB-T2, based on having a bandwidth of 40.2 Mbps each, there would be 241.2 Mbps of bandwidth available for Freeview channels. The current eight multiplex system has around 250 Mbps, but over 30Mbps of bandwidth on the eighth multiplex isn't currently being used. In other words, it's possible to fit the current eight multiplex service on the six surviving national multiplexes, if a switch is made. And it's likely that in time, services that are available in both SD and HD would close their SD outlet, freeing up more space.
The BBC's plans and timescales for this are very much dependent on the outcome of the Charter Renewal process, which will confirm what the BBC will receive in income over the next ten years and what its duties will be. The current Charter ends at the end of this year, but may be extended on a short-term basis due to Government delays.