Why Millions Still Watch Analog TV

Despite the popular notion that all TV has been digitized, it has not.

Those awash in a sea of digital TV options might find this statement absurd. But around the world, millions of people are watching analog TV. And just like other transitions from old to new, the “old” is running out of time. Parts and new equipment are running dry for analog TV, with inefficient wireless analog transmissions tolerated less as mobile broadband services increase spectrum demand.

With equipment and replacement parts specific to analog terrestrial TV transmissions fading from the marketplace, the future is uncertain for analog TV broadcasters. Yes, there are a couple of places where there are no longer terrestrial broadcast transmissions of any kind, but these are outliers. Millions of people receive TV from terrestrial broadcasts. For example, DTC estimates that Latin America has a more than 50% TV household penetration for terrestrial TV viewing. In this region, only Mexico has completed its analog-to-digital TV transition. Brazil’s analog TV shut off is not scheduled to be complete until 2023 (transitions have been completed in the largest cities).

Why the lag? It varies among countries, but the most common reasons are financial, political or due to relatively small populations. For example, some Caribbean countries have not ceased analog TV broadcasts because there is enough spectrum to satisfy mobile broadband service demand, making broadcasters reluctant (or financially unable) to invest in a digital upgrade. Without a government mandate or subsidy for broadcasters, it’s unlikely there will be much progress.

But where there is high population density and spectrum demand, pressure mounts on analog broadcasters to make more efficient use of available spectrum and complete the switchover to digital terrestrial (DTT) broadcasts. All of this is invariably intertwined with the political and TV market trends. Some incumbent broadcasters are resistant to ceding ground to new spectrum licensees who represent competitive—and in the eyes of some—existential threats.

Despite that resistance, we believe it has become a political and operational necessity for broadcasters to demonstrate their commitment to efficient spectrum use. The tools are available. The next-generation TV standards (DVB-T2 with HEVC encoding and ATSC 3.0 also with HEVC coding) deliver much greater efficiency that can boost effective bandwidth by a factor of 3 or greater. The irony is that the dividend realized from shrinking terrestrial broadcasters’ spectrum footprint has primarily gone to operators who send inefficient unicast transmissions.

In addition to gaining virtual capacity and greater operating efficiencies (i.e., big savings in power consumption), completing transitions helps smooth relations with policymakers. Policymakers will see it as an opportunity to gain “virtual” bandwidth for new service providers who, in turn, will likely dig deep into their pockets for access to that gain.

Broadcasters are probably better served by shutting off analog transmissions and convincing policymakers and regulators to fund the digital transition through spectrum-auction proceeds. If they don’t, they may just fade away like a snowy TV picture.