The first major nation to pull the plug on analog television and switch to digital terrestrial broadcasting did so Monday morning to save costs and promote competition with cable-TV providers. According to a report by the Associated Press, The Netherlands ended the era of "free to air" TV broadcasting this week with little fanfare and almost no complaint from the Dutch public. The reason for the seamless transition is that the people of The Netherlands—some 16 million—overwhelmingly rely on cable to receive their TV programming. The move is expected to save the nation's federal government about US $14 million a year in costs associated with subsidizing the last remaining analog broadcast shows.

The bandwidth formerly used by analog has been licensed through 2017 by the country's former telecommunications monopoly Royal KPN NV, which will use it to broadcast digital television, the AP report stated. In return Royal KPN will build out a national system of digital transmission towers and financially support several state-supported channels and regional public broadcasters. The new service will enable the Dutch firm to compete with European cable providers, who enjoy a 94 percent share of the country's TV market. A spokesperson for the The Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs told the AP that the switchover would be "healthy" for consumers.

The Netherlands now becomes the first major nation to make a complete transition to digital TV, after relying on analog broadcasting since 1951. Others, such as Belgium and some of the Scandinavian countries, are scheduled to follow suit next year, with the United States expected to join in the upgrade cycle by 2009. Conventional wisdom sees smaller nations as needing to exercise less effort to make the historic change than larger ones such as the U.S., which still possesses a sprawling, entrenched analog TV share of market.

Last year, in our October cover story, "The Dawn of Digital TV", contributor Robert M. Rast (IEEE Senior Member) wrote that many Americans, particularly those in low-income circumstances, will be the most adversely affected by the switchover. For example, they'll need a new TV set or, at minimum, a new tuner costing at least $100. And they might take their frustrations out on elected officials if they perceive the transition as being too disruptive, he wrote.

Still, according to Rast, consumers in general will be the big winners, with new and improved services available, in both television and telecommunications, such as better cellphone reception, opportunities to download video to personal devices, and mobile broadband Internet (as previously used airwave real estate is made available for other applications). And, in the United States, they might see a modest dip in the federal budget deficit when the government sells off 108 megahertz of the old analog broadcast spectrum for as much as $50 billion, by some estimates.

The high-tech move by The Netherlands this week is symbolic in a way its authorities perhaps never anticipated, in that a people who have fought so long and hard to cope with sea changes became the first to openly embrace a rising tide of change in technology that looms on the horizon for all the world's nations. As usual, they handled the challenge with characteristic aplomb.


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