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Switzerland becomes first European nation to end digital terrestrial broadcasting

Switzerland has become the first European country to ditch digital terrestrial transmission (DTT) after its public broadcaster SRG has been allowed to terminate DVB-T at the end of 2019 without migrating to the second-generation DVB-T2.

This raises the question whether other countries will follow this lead, not just in Europe but also elsewhere, although that looks unlikely to happen in the immediate future. Switzerland because of its mountainous terrain is less suited to DTT than most other countries and only 1.9% of households now use DVB-T. Just 64,000 homes in the country still have DTT for primary TV reception according to the SRG itself.

SRG is recommending those homes affected switch to DTH satellite, which offers superior reception in the country and is also free to air. However, this does incur the cost of a dish as well as a smart card to decrypt the copyrighted domestic TV channels. These are broadcast on Eutelsat’s Hotbird satellite system (13° East).

The move follows growing pressure to cut costs as SRG is funded entirely by license fee, which will remain in force after 71.6% of the country’s voters rejected the No Billag initiative to abolish it in a referendum held in March 2018. Switzerland is unique in settling a large number of public policy issues by referendum and for SRG means it must adhere to stricter rules over spending and content direction than most other public service broadcasters. This led to the move to cease DTT and meet its revised charter to focus strongly on offering a distinct service and content line up that differs from commercial alternatives.

By contrast other European countries have opted to migrate to DVB-T2 as they have larger numbers of homes dependent on over the air transmission, including neighboring Germany and Austria. Even so the Swiss move has highlighted how this may be just a stay of execution and that many European countries will switch off their transmitters in perhaps a decade’s time.

The situation is different in some countries outside Europe, especially the world’s largest TV market the US, where the future of DTT transmission looks more secure. It is true that the major US networks such as NBC, CBC, ABC and Fox are not compelled to broadcast their shows over the air and could if they wish offer their premium content exclusively to cable and satellite operators. But that reckons without the proliferating churn in the US away from traditional pay TV operators to OTT alternatives which is making more households dependent on DTT for these traditional channels providing content not available from providers like Netflix. As a result, the number of US homes relying just on broadcast over the air increased by 41% over the five years to 2017 according to Nielsen, with the trend strongest among millennials averaging about 34 in age.

This trend is also evident in some other countries, such as the UK, where a combination of Freeview services over the air and OTT has been gaining ground particularly among millennials and less affluent homes. It is therefore in the best interests of TV broadcasters, networks and content producers to ensure their programs are available by whatever means people want to receive them. This will keep DTT going for a long time in those countries and it may be Switzerland is just an isolated case for now.

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