The days of fuzzy pictures and poor reception are numbered in Germany. After Berlin became the first region to completely scrap analog terrestrial television, the rest of the country is now leaping into the digital age.
The test stripes are a relict of television's past.
Unlike telephones and computers, terrestrial television -- as free-to-air broadcast TV is know -- hasn’t changed much in the last decades. Sure there were improvements in quality of image, more channels were added, cable was introduced and stereo sound surrounded us. But since the advent of color TV in the 1950s, we’ve pretty much been viewing the tube the same way since it was invented -- namely via broadcast analog radio waves.
But that’s about to change. In some places the revolution -- or better yet the evolution -- of television is already underway. In Europe, digital video broadcasting, with its high quality image resolution and greater viewing possibilities, is quickly squeezing out normal analog television.
According to a 2002 study compiled by the European Commission Directorate General for the Information Society, about 18 percent of European households already receive television in a digital format. Nearly all European satellite-based pay-TV platforms are transmitted digitally, and about 80 percent of all European cable systems are outfitted for digital TV.
By 2006 the European Commission expects that 65 percent of all Europeans will have switched from analog to digital television and the vast majority of analog over-the-air broadcasters will cease to exist. When compared to about 45 percent digitalization in the United States, that number puts the European Union at the forefront of the new telecommunication technology.
And one of the forerunners in digital TV is Germany. Although Finland, Great Britain, Spain and Sweden were all quicker to introduce digital broadcasting, Germany was the first country to implement digital television as the sole broadcasting format for an entire region.
Pioneering spirit in Berlin-Brandenburg
In August Berlin-Brandenburg broke with analog television and went exclusively digital. It was the first time an entire region had made such a complete switch, and the world, or at least Europe, watched curiously to see what would happen.
And the switchover went down relatively smoothly. Of the 170,000 households who depended on analog broadcasting, only about 20,000 had failed to purchase the necessary "set-top" boxes which decode the digital format for analog televisions. The rest of the cities’ television viewers didn’t notice much of a change since they had already been watching programs via cable or satellite equipped for the new digital format.
In fact only about 10 percent of German television viewers rely on a traditional terrestrial antenna for reception. The majority, 60 percent, have cable and the rest satellite. So the question of switching to digital video broadcasting-terrestrial (DVB-T) really only effects a small portion of the population, since cable and satellite transmissions have already begun phasing in the digital format without a lot of fanfare.
Still, not everyone has made the leap into the digital era, especially in the more rural areas which depend on analog transmission. For this reason, Germany is slowly phasing in digital broadcasting region by region. By 2010, however, all television signals should be transmitted digitally.
That monumental process was set in stone earlier this week when the director generals of the public broadcasting stations and the leading private channels signed a deal agreeing to start broadcasting digitally for selected regions in the north and west of the country.
The next regions to make the switchover are Bremen and the Cologne-Bonn metropolitan area. The two regions will go digital in May 2004 and will be followed closely by Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Lübeck and the industrial Ruhr Valley around Essen and Dortmund. By the end of 2005 some 13 million households will have switched from analog to digital television.
TV and Radio antenna
The end of the analog age has been referred to as the chance for terrestrial transmission. What until now has had little chance of competing against the more popular and innovative cable and satellite will enjoy a much-needed boost when Germans start purchasing decoder sets to convert their rooftop antennas into receivers for digital transmission.
Fritz Pleitgen, director general of public broadcaster WDR, applauded the move towards all-around digital TV as the "comeback" for terrestrial transmission. "I’m convinced that with the help of DVB-T the program offering will be considerably greater than what is now available over antenna," he said and added that starting in May 16 channels (eight private, eight public) will be broadcast over the air for the Cologne-Bonn region.
The jump in channel selection offered by DVB-T is clearly one of the key benefits for consumers. By the end of 2004 everyone in the new digitalized regions will have the luxury of choosing from 24 different channels. Jobst Plog, director general for NDR public broadcaster said that the new technology will make terrestrial reception just as attractive as cable and satellite.
One of the technological highlights of digital television, in addition to better quality pictures and a greater range of broadcasting selection, is its ability to be received theoretically anywhere, even on handheld devices such as Palm Pilots.
"People can watch television in practically any corner of the house or garden and even traffic jams will be more endurable with DVB-T," Pleitgen said praising the merits of the digital format.
Plus, with the widespread adoption of digital television technology, media analysts believe it is only a matter of time before TV programs start popping up on PCs, mobile phones or even wristwatches.
And new hybrid systems such as the much-talked about Multimedia Home Platform (MHP), which integrates television and other interactive information sources like the Internet, come one step closer to digitizing the normal household. When that happens, and the coach-potato actually starts interacting with the tube, television will truly have entered a new era.