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Are you ready for digital TV switch?

Cherbourg has become the first large French town to change entirely to digital television. Here's what is involved

DIGITAL TV means improved pictures and sound and a bigger range of channels, but can require adjustments like a set-top decoder box.

The town-sized trial comes before the first of the French regions (Alsace) switches next February. The rest of the regions will be rolling out the change through 2010 until November 2011, starting with Basse-Normandie (apart from Cherbourg) in March, Pays-de-la-Loire in May, and Brittany in June (see www.tousaunumerique.fr and then les régions for all of the dates).

Canal + is stopping analogue broadcasts earlier than other channels in some areas, notably Paca where they stop this month even though the final switch-off for other broadcasts is not until 2011.

The roll-out is accompanied by measures to help the less well-off prepare. About five million homes still rely on traditional analogue broadcasts - if you are among them banner messages will begin flashing on your TV three months before the switch.

Analogue broadcasts, used since the start of television, transmit programmes using continuously varying radio waves. In digital television sound and pictures are converted into a digital format and compressed, taking up less space, which means more channels can be sent out.

Digital signals are picked up by standard aerials, satellite dishes or through cable and are then decoded and turned back into sound and pictures using a set-top box, or a decoder built into the TV.

All ordinary TVs bought in France since 1981 have the capacity to show digital - the key point being whether or not they have a scart (péritel in French) socket to plug a decoder in. Recently-bought ones should have a decoder built in.
The digital changeover is taking place in many countries (the UK aims to complete it in 2012). The free channels concerned in France are TF1, France 3, France 3, Canal +, France 5/Arte (Arte is broadcast on the France 5 frequency in the evenings) and M6.

They are all being replaced by digital terrestrial versions (digital television received through an aerial, not satellite or cable), called TNT in French (télévision numérique terrestre).

Digital television has been available for several years, by satellite, cable, ADSL (internet), fibre-optic cables and (since 2005) TNT. Swapping will mean you can get an extra 12 national channels plus a regional one (further channels are available through subscriptions).

A programme guide is integrated in the digital service to tell you what you are watching and what is coming up next. It will also free up frequencies that can later be used for digital radio, new channels, wireless internet and the emergency services.

How do I get it?

In most parts of France, to get the free 19 channels, it is enough to use your ordinary aerial plus a television with a built-in receiver or to a set-top decoder box.

About 5% of users, notably in mountainous areas or deep valleys will have to get satellite dishes in order to receive the broadcasts.

Note that digital television is not the same as “high-definition” television (télévision HD), a specific kind of digital broadcast with even better resolution. To get this you need a television described as “toute HD” with a special kind of screen.

Some of the free digital channels also broadcast in HD as well as ordinary digital (called simple definition, SD) and some paid-for channels are only HD.

If you do not have an integrated (HD) decoder you need a top-end decoder for this (which will also receive non-HD channels). Since March last year all French TVs are sold with integrated digital decoders (of the HD-type if the TV is marketed as “HD”).

Adapters range from €20 - €80, with ones able to get high-definition broadcasts being the most expensive. A satellite dish and adaptor costs e280 or more.

The official site can help you find a professional who is “agrée tous au numérique” (ie. has the Tous au Numérique accreditation - the name for the digital roll-out campaign, meaning “we’re all going digital”).

When the switchover happens in your area you will need to tune your TV channels in again (even, in some cases, if you already get TNT).

You can also get advice from a helpline on 09 70 81 88 18 (Monday to Saturday, 8.00 - 21.00, local call cost - advice in French).

Help available

You may be able to get help if at present you only have the six analogue channels and, for some of the grants, if you are below certain income thresholds (see the site under aides or call the helpline). Two of these payments are reserved for those in households exonerated from paying the redevance audiovisuelle (TV licence).

Aide à l'équipement (equipment grant), up to €25, goes towards a decoder, new TV or subscribing to cable, ASDL or satellite television. You could also get an aide à l'antenne (antenna grant) up to €120 under the same conditions if you live in a limited number of areas where an adjustment of your aerial, or possibly a new aerial, will be needed for good reception. In some remote areas it will still be necessary to have a satellite dish and aide à la parabole (up to €250, non means-tested) can help pay for this.

Those who qualify should get letters a few months before the switch-off telling them about the grants. The grants are for purchases made in the three months before the switch-off and up to a month after. You need to apply then.

Free home visits will be available - organised through the helpline - to help you set up your decoder and tune in your TV if your household is aged over 70 or you are rated as 80% or more disabled. The helpline will be able to advise.

See our residential taxes helpguide for more details on the redevance audiovisuelle.

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