The Netherlands ended transmission of "free to air" analog television Monday, becoming the first nation to switch completely to digital signals.
Few Dutch consumers noticed, because the overwhelming majority get TV via cable. Only around 74,000 households relied primarily on the old-fashioned TV antennas in this country of 16 million, although 220,000 people had an "occasional use" set somewhere such as in a vacation house, camper or boat, according to government figures.
The bandwidth formerly used by analog has been licensed through 2017 by former telecommunications company Royal KPN NV, which will use it to broadcast digital television.
Under its agreement with the government, KPN bore the cost of building digital broadcasting masts and must continue to broadcast three state-supported channels and several regional public broadcasters free of charge. In return, it can use the rest of the open bandwidth to charge around $18.50 a month for a package of other channels that is comparable with cable.
Whether customers opt for just the free channels or a full cable-like package, they must first buy a tuner to decode the new "digital terrestrial" signals, available for around $66.50.
KPN spokesman Jan Davids said the switch occurred between midnight and 2 a.m. without any reported problems.
"Then we broke out the champagne," he said.
At present, the full package of channels is available in most of the country, with national coverage expected by early 2007, Davids said. The government-sponsored channels were available nationally as of Monday.
The government will save around $14 million annually from the switch, the cost it used to pay to broadcast the "free" service that was used by only 74,000 households — a hidden cost of roughly $200 per house.
And "when 94 percent of the market is served by cable, more competition is healthy," said Economic Affairs ministry spokeswoman Judith Thompson.
Cable here faces minor but growing competition from satellite and more recently, television via high-speed Internet connections with the service known as IPTV.
KPN's Davids declined to disclose financial details of the company's deals with the television production companies whose shows it now broadcasts. On a model similar to that of cable, KPN will also offer additional channel packages above the basic set — such as sports and film channels — for an extra fee.
The Dutch switch to "digital terrestrial" television is a minor milestone. Analog television was introduced in the Netherlands in 1951.
Governments around the world are gradually making the switch to digital, with some Scandinavian countries and Belgium targeting a 2007 switch-off date. The target is 2009 in the United States, and 2011 in Japan.
Last year, it was estimated that 21 million U.S. households do not get cable or satellite service and rely solely on free over-the-air TV. Consumers Union estimated an additional 20 million homes that have cable or satellite do not have all of their TV sets hooked up to the service and would need converter boxes, too.
Most developed countries have already begun testing or broadcasting digital TV signals on some bandwidths.