Spain’s Digital Dilemma


A Fonsagrada is a flyspeck of a town, tucked in the Spanish mountains of the northwest province of Galicia. The history of this village of no more than 5,000 inhabitants is linked to the well-known pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
But in April, 2008, A Fonsagrada was in the spotlight in Spain for a different reason: it became the first Spanish municipality where the analogue blackout took place.

Many years have passed since 1961, when the first analogical television signal arrived at this picturesque Galician town, which more than a year ago welcomed in the technology of the 21st century with a switch to digital television.

In December, 2005, the European Commission recommended that all its member states should complete the digital switchover by 2012. The digital television transition (DTT), also known as the digital switchover or analogue blackout, refers to the process in which analogue television broadcasting is turned into digital television. For end-users, the DTT means an improved image quality and sound reception, a major increase of TV channels and long-desired interactivity, in contrast with the unidirectional television.

Although not all European countries have ceased analogical television transmissions, “the process has already been completed in countries such as Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, Sweden, the Netherlands, in Flanders here in Belgium, as well as in major areas in Austria”, outlined Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Telecoms and Media on 9 July at Lisbon Council’s Ludwig Erhard Lecture in Brussels.

A further group of countries have already begun the analogue blockout and Spain is one of them.

The Spanish government designed a three-step transition plan. The first phase started on 30 June, and 13 percent of the Spanish population was affected by it; the second step will commence on 31 December, 2009, and will cover 32 percent of the population; the final stage will take place on 3 April, 2010, after which analogical television transmissions will no longer function in Spanish territory.

Previous to this schedule, the Spanish government put into practise two DTT transition tests. The first one,was carried out in A Fonsagrada. A Fonsagrada was chosen because its difficult geographical situation would provide a useful opportunity to gather information about how DTT would work in isolated areas with a small population. Soria, a province located northeast of Madrid, was the second location to try the analogue switchoff. In this last case some 50,000 citizens were affected by the plan that sought to serve as an example for the rest of the country.

In the year 2000 Spain was one of the first countries, along with the United Kingdom in 1998 and Sweden in 1999, to launch DTT with platforms heavily reliant on pay television. But in Spain the process between the launching of these platforms and the completion of analogue switchoff has been pretty slow, whereas other European countries, such as Norway and the Netherlands, have been able to complete it within two years.

In recent years there have been a number of surveys and studies showing disbelief in the future of digital television in Spain. The Estudio de Opinión: Tendencias del Sector Audiovisual, or Study of Opinions of Trends in the Audiovisual Sector, carried out by Time Consultants for IESE’s Public-Private Sector Research Center in June, 2008, showed that 60 percent of Spanish audiovisual industry leaders thought the country was little or not at all prepared for the switch to digital. Results revealed that scepticism was even higher among private TV operators (74 percent) and local institutions (83 percent). On the other hand, technology companies and public television operators appeared to be less gloomy, saying that Spain was well or somewhat prepared (60 and 57 percent, respectively).

Most criticisms related to the difficulty of achieving a wide coverage; the uncertainty surrounding the date of the blackout; the little interest in DDT by certain TV operators; the absence of concrete plans of implementation; and the lack of action and information towards the viewers, who, at the end of the day, are the most affected part of this process.

Have they taken enough time to prepare us for it? Has the audience been engaged in this process? Changes in the media sector have to be based on a simple and self-interested truth: citizens must participate in them because an informed public will always respond better to change than a non well-informed one.

In 2006, FACUA -Consumers in Action- a Spanish non-governmental and non-profit organisation, warned the government that a lack of information could complicate the digital transition. They informed the government that an important number of consumers living in areas with no DTT coverage had already bought DTT receptor units thinking that was all they needed to be able to capture the new digital transmission.

Completing the analogue terrestrial platform in Spain will not be easy. It will be interesting to observe how major cities like Barcelona or Madrid adapt to it. At the beginning of 2009 figures were not very encouraging: DTT coverage was 90 percent, but not even 50 percent of Spanish householdsimage could reach the digital signal. Worse, only 22 percent of them were DTT consumers. Something similar happened in the United States, where the analogical switchoff was planned for 17 February, but it had to be put off until June because some six million households did not have access to it. Just a couple of months after the complete digital switchover took place, some NGO have reported the problems that some public sectors such as immigrants and families with a low income levels are facing difficulties to get access to the new digital television. Let’s hope this issue does not turn into a matter of civil rights.

It is imperative that governmental bodies, audiovisual industry leaders, private TV operators and local institutions work hard together so that the so long-anticipated digital platform becomes a reality for everyone. This scenario will also let us see how society responds as a whole when it comes to adapting to technology and new (for some) products.

Back in A Fonsagrada a year and a half later, switchover results have not been as expected.  Some 18 percent of the population, according to data provided by the Xunta de Galicia, the regional government,  have still no access to the digital transmission. That said, it should be understood that these figures may not be entirely reliable because Xunta is not aware of how many inhabitants receive the digital signal from other platforms.

Whatever the case may be, if we are eager to experience television in the 21st century, we need only look toward a small village in the north of Spain, where they surely know by now about big changes!

Flickr images from users aprendizdeamelie and jordichueca