Greece will switch off its main terrestrial transmitter this coming Friday on the night of 17thof August 2012, taking a major step in its drawn-out analogue switch-off. ERT, Greece's public service broadcaster, will switch off its transmitter on the Imittos hill on the north-eastern slopes of Athens and immediately switch on its digital TV signal. ERT is the last major broadcaster to implement the digital switch-over as all the major commercial broadcasters shut off their transmitters on the 20th of July 2012. The Government granted ERT a short postponement, citing coverage of the London Olympic Games as a reason to avoid disruption that may have been caused by analogue shut down.
This is not the final stage of the long-standing Greek digital transition, but it represents a substantial step forward. The Imittos transmission site covers around 65 per cent of the roughly 1.8m households in the whole Attica region (the region includes the capital, Athens, as well as a large number of municipalities with a total population exceeding 4.5m). The smaller Parnitha transmission site, in the north of Athens (covering around 25 per cent of households) will continue its analogue signal transmission at least till the first half of 2013.
The earlier switch-off of the commercial stations went without major incident. Athenians already have access to eight digital multiplexes and roughly 30 channels, all free with the exception of two Nova channels (Nova Cinema and NovaSports Highlights, part of the Nova Terrestrial pay TV offer) which are carried in one of ERT's multiplexes. Only one HD channel--ERT HD--is currently offered, but all the major commercial broadcasters have drawn up plans to launch HD channels in the near future. Most of the channels use MPEG-4 as the digital compression standard, and the network architecture chosen was that of a Single Frequency Network (SFN) model.
The full DTT line-up includes the six major commercial channels (the big commercial broadcasters in Greece have formed in 2009 a joint network operator company, Digea, which is in charge of the roll-out of their DTT network); 14 regional channels; two pay TV channels; and eight channels that are being carried on ERT's multiplexes (including BBC World Service, Euronews and TV5 Monde). According to the Greek Government's announcements the next big switch-off will take place at the end of September 2012 in Salonica (the Hortiatis transmission site).
The Greek switch-over process can reasonably be described as a unique digital migration, and not necessarily for the right reasons. The country has had no detailed switch-over plan, it rests entirely upon the network operators to select the geographic areas and set the time frame for analogue switch off. Nobody actually knows what the final number of operating multiplexes will be in each geographical area (the number can swing between seven and ten multiplexes). Further, no proper licensing procedure has been established (in fact the Government was initially granting the licence to the content provider but now, according to recent official announcements, the licence will be assigned to the multiplex operator instead). In addition, there is no final frequency map (the process so far was based on a provisional map and the final frequency map will be officially presented in September 2012). No organization has been created to manage and coordinate the switch-over process. Subsequently, no targeted assistance scheme (for vulnerable social groups, disabled people, low income households) is in place and there seems to be no plans for creating one. Equally important, there are no plans for subsidizing the purchase of digital TV equipment like set-top-boxes (a measure that could speed up the digitization process). Currently there is no strategy for a well-orchestrated and planned migration to HD channels on the DTT platform and the transition to more efficient transmission standards like the DVB-T2 has barely been mentioned.
More striking, is the fact that, although the Government has taken the decision to free channels 61 to 69 UHF (the 790 TO 862 MHz frequency band) from any DTT transmission as a first step towards the assignment of the Digital Dividend following an auction process, yet channels 63 and 65 in the Attica region have been assigned to two Multiplexes. These Multiplexes will carry regional channels and if the recent Government announcements that the Digital Dividend auction will be held by the first half of 2013 are to be taken seriously, then that simply means that the regional channels will have to vacate those frequencies barely 12 months after the time they were awarded them. Thus, it seems, the 'Gordian knot' of Greek digital transition seems tighter than ever.