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The big switchover: New terrestrial TV service going live in Germany

One of the biggest switchover events in the history of digital terrestrial television is taking place in Germany, as part of a complete migration to the next generation of terrestrial TV, a move the UK is intending to make in the coming years.

Overnight, terrestrial TV viewers in many parts of Germany are without TV signals as transmitter work takes place to move broadcasts in all major urban areas to the new DVB-T2 standard. Work will complete by midday Wednesday, and all viewers with compatible devices will need to retune.

Older terrestrial TV receivers will become redundant, except in smaller towns and in rural areas where the old service will keep going for up to two more years. Anyone using terrestrial TV as their main or secondary source of TV has had to purchase new equipment to keep watching.

As part of the change, all main channels will become available in HD, replacing standard definition broadcasts. Channels will be distributed using HEVC, a video compression standard that maximises the amount of bandwidth needed for HD channels. The use of the HEVC standard means that next generation terrestrial TV receivers designed for use in other countries won't work in Germany.

Germany's new terrestrial TV service will compose of three elements: a free-to-air core service with channels from the public service broadcasters, plus some local and teleshopping channels; a Pay TV "Lite" offer, costing €5.75 a month containing all major commercial broadcasters plus services from Eurosport, Disney and Nickleodeon and a hybrid-online service offering additional channels via the internet, including NHK World and the German version of Radioplayer.

The Pay TV "Lite" offer is provided by the perhaps unsuitably named Freenet TV, which is available on a rolling monthly basis or payable as an annual lump sum. Among some viewers it's a controversial move, as many of the channels that are now encrypted were available free-to-air on the old terrestrial TV service. It's a move that prompted Germany's Die Zeit newspaper to ask "Is this the end of Free TV?"

Five years ago, Germany's biggest commercial broadcaster RTL threatened to shut down all of its terrestrial TV services, but the promise of a pay TV platform has encouraged it and other commercial broadcasters to continue with terrestrial broadcasts. Commercial broadcasters say they need the extra income due to the high costs of creating and distributing HD content, and already encrypt the HD versions of their channels via satellite platform HD+. 

Behind the change is a move to clear frequencies for future mobile internet use: the new terrestrial TV service uses bandwidth efficient technology allowing it to occupy fewer frequencies and yet provide enough bandwidth to sustain what is hoped will be a commercial viable service in a country where the majority of viewers use cable or satellite to access TV programmes.

Rural areas look set to continue with a diminished channel line-up, with the commercial broadcasters focusing on lucrative urban and suburban areas.

The UK will be needing to make changes to its terrestrial TV service, Freeview, in the coming years. Here, the transition is going to take place in multiple stages: first, region-by-region, Freeview channels will be changing frequencies between now and 2020. Then, a move to DVB-T2 will be made, which will enable broadcasters to make more use of HD and provide sufficient capacity for the Freeview service of the future. But details are scarce, and nobody dares yet to talk about compete standard definition switch-off in favour of HD. Compare that to France, where all main channels went HD-only last year, and to places such as Austria, The Netherlands and Germany where SD broadcasts are being withdrawn on terrestrial platforms.

The launch of a new DVB-T2 platform in Germany marks the second time the country has overtaken the UK with new digital terrestrial TV developments. The UK was first to launch a digital terrestrial TV service, but Germany was first at turning off the analogue TV signal. The UK was first to launch a service using DVB-T2 at the end of 2009, but is still years away from making a complete switch to the newer standard.

But the UK has more viewers dependent on a terrestrial TV signal. Ahead of the impending changes, much of the work of ensuring viewers have future-proofed devices has been left to the market, although from this year, all devices bearing the Freeview logo have to be compatible with DVB-T2.

For Germany though, this latest switch is widely seen as the last throw of the dice for terrestrial TV: if viewers fail to adopt the service in sufficient numbers and refuse to pay for access to the commercial channels, then it's hard to see how terrestrial TV will survive, especially as online alternatives continue to grow. Time will tell if this is the beginning of a bright future or the beginning of the end of DTT in the country.