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Digital flat-screen television sales are taking off in Poland. The Eastern European country will begin its analog shutdown next year. (AP) Digital flat-screen television sales are taking off in Poland. The Eastern European country will begin its analog shutdown next year. (AP)

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Technology

Analogue TV going the way of the dodo

Finland shuts off analog broadcasts, but questions swirl around Canada's move to digital

Last Updated August 31, 2007

Somewhere in rural Finland, there is no television today.

That's because as of 4 a.m. Finnish time on Friday, the Scandinavian country implemented the first of two phases in its evolution to advanced television services.

The country has turned off over-the-air broadcasting of analog television signals in favour of newer and more efficient digital transmission technology.

In most parts of the country, Finns have, for the past few months, been frantically buying up new antennae and converters that can pick up these digital signals in anticipation of the changeover.

There is, however, a stodgy minority that has stuck by their old television sets and rabbit-ear antennae. These people, along with the unlucky few living outside the range of the new digital transmitters, woke up today to find themselves in a world without television.

Finland's Ministry of Transport and Communications says about 85 per cent of households were ready for the change in July but estimates the level to be much higher now.

"This month has been very busy in the television shops and I estimate the coverage is now over 95 per cent," ministry spokesman Ismo Kosonen says.

The second phase of the plan, where cable companies cease analog transmissions, comes into effect at the end of February. That may be a bigger hurdle for the country, with Kosonen estimating only 65 per cent of households with cable are ready. The February deadline already represents an extension to the original plan, which was to shut analog off completely on Friday.

Whether or not Finland can meet its deadline, the worldwide march toward digital is inexorable. Luxembourg and the Netherlands have already switched off analog and the United States and Canada have announced plans to turn off over-the-air broadcasting as well, in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Germany are in the process of converting, while most other countries have plans underway.

The move is being made to introduce the numerous advantages — for consumers, broadcasters and television service providers — that digital television technology has over analog. For consumers, digital gives a better picture quality and the ability for two-way transmission, which enables features such as video-on-demand and on-screen programming guides.

For broadcasters and service providers, digital is a much more efficient use of airwaves and cable capacity. Several digital channels can be beamed to homes in the same amount of transmission space that one analog channel takes up, so by switching to digital a service provider can offer more channels. Clearing out analog channels also creates room for the burgeoning high-definition market.

Governments are also taking advantage of the move by repurposing some of the airwaves that will be freed up. The United States will auction off some of the airwaves currently used by analog television broadcasting next year, and it is expected that companies with winning bids will deploy the spectrum for mobile phone services. The U.S. government will also keep some of the airwaves, to be used for emergency communications services.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in May announced analog over-the-air broadcasts will be shut off and replaced by digital on Aug. 31, 2011. Unlike the United States, however, Canadian regulators have not indicated what the freed-up airwaves will be used for, but a similar auction is expected.

When the shutdown happens, people picking up free channels such as the CBC will need to either buy new televisions that are compatible with the digital signals or install set-top box converters, which now cost about $200. About 10 per cent of Canadian households still use rabbit-ear antennae, according to the CRTC.

Industry experts believe the costs of the set-top boxes will drop by then to as low as $60, or the need for the converters will be eliminated completely by television manufacturers, who will build them into new sets.

"Some of them will for sure," says David Purdy, vice-president and general manager of television services for Rogers Communications Inc. "The challenge is how many TVs you have and their ages."

Still, the United States has a leg up on Canada in that the U.S. government has announced it will subsidize the cost of set-top boxes for consumers. Canada has yet to announce a similar plan.

Neither the CRTC nor its U.S. counterpart, the Federal Communications Commission, have mandated a shut-off date for analog over cable, however. Both regulators have opted for a "market-driven" approach, where consumers and companies will phase the technology out gradually.

Under existing rules in Canada, a cable operator can apply to the CRTC to shut off analog channels when it is able to show that at least 85 per cent of its customers are already on digital. Rogers — Canada's largest cable company — is just over 50 per cent and, if it continues its rate of growth, should reach that threshold in about four years.

Other Canadian cable providers will likely take significantly longer. Shaw Communications Inc., the country's second largest cable company, is only in the low 30 percentile range.

Back in May, the CRTC said the decision to shut off over-the-air analog was necessitated by the U.S. move to do so. If Canada did not follow suit, a situation mirroring the 1950s and 1960s — when Canada lagged it southern neighbour by about five years in rolling out colour television broadcasts — could arise. In that time, Canadians became hooked on colour programming emanating from the United States and shunned locally-produced television, which was in black and white. Forcing the analog shut-off will spur Canadian broadcasters to keep pace with their U.S. counterparts, the CRTC said.

Purdy of Rogers says there is some incentive for North American cable companies to keep analog going indefinitely, since it represents a competitive advantages to the satellite television services offered by rivals such as Bell Canada Inc. Satellite television is all digital in Canada, which means consumers need set-top boxes — and they come at an extra cost — for every television in their residence. Cable companies can offer customers a digital set-top box for their main television with continued analog connectivity for the other sets.

"They [consumers] want a box-free solution to one or two of these TVs," he says. "We think there will be some advantage to having an analog offering for some time to come."

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