Europe, Africa, Middle East sign digital TV pact

More than 100 countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East pledged on Friday to switch to digital audio and television broadcasting in a plan marking "the beginning of the end" for analogue services in the region.

The pact, announced by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), commits countries to licensing and supporting digital terrestrial broadcasting by 2015.

The United Nations agency said the shift should allow for higher quality sound and pictures, faster data transmission and new mobile and wireless services such as hand-held televisions.

In a statement issued after the conclusion of five-week-long talks in Geneva, the ITU said the new technology could make video, audio, Internet and multi-media data "accessible and usable anywhere and at any time."

"The digital switchover will leapfrog existing technologies to connect the unconnected in underserved and remote communities and close the digital divide," it said.

The pact does not apply to East Asia or the Americas, which may choose to forge their own regional accords but have not yet done so, but it does cover Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as Iran.

ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi said the digital swap could involve big transition costs for both broadcasters and consumers, who will likely need to buy digital transmitters to ensure reception after analogue transmission is discontinued.

Some technical assistance may be necessary to help poorer countries, especially in Africa, he told a news briefing.

Still, conference chairman Kavouss Arasteh of Iran said the transition costs would be reduced because of economies of scale, as many countries will be making the change at the same time.

While most countries committed to a June 17, 2015, date for the switch to digital broadcasting, some asked for an extra five years to transfer some analogue broadcasting services by 2020.