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'Free-to-air' powering growth of satellite TV boxes

Survey points to popularity in Europe, the Middle East and Asia of receivers that skip the pay TV and focus on free programming.

Shipments of set-top boxes that receive signals from digital satellites will continue to grow worldwide through 2008, fueled by increasing demand for "free-to-air" boxes, according to a new report.

In a survey released Wednesday, researcher In-Stat/MDR said the popularity of FTA boxes, which pick up free programming as opposed to subscription fare such as that offered by DirecTV, will carry overall shipments of set-top boxes to 65 million this year and to 71 million units by 2008.

FTA receivers are largely used in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where there are more free channels broadcast than in North America, In-Stat/MDR Senior Analyst Michelle Abraham said. The content on these unencrypted channels ranges from newscasts and local programming to sports and movies.

"The growth in free-to-air set-top boxes has to do with the pricing of the boxes coming down and becoming more affordable for more homes, especially in Asia, Africa and the Middle East," Abraham said. Falling component prices have led to price drops.

Shipments of FTA boxes will outpace those of pay-TV boxes this year, the survey said, hitting 36 million units, compared with 29 million. FTA boxes won the shipment race last year as well.

Europe, Asia and the Middle East also have pay-TV satellite systems, Abraham said, but they're not as pervasive as in North America. Some North Americans, however, also go the FTA route.

In the United States, large satellite dishes that are hooked up to FTA boxes can pick up some free, unencrypted programming and beam it down to the head-end of a cable network, Abraham said. These large dishes, which aren't aligned with any particular digital-satellite subscriber service, can also pick up programming from foreign countries.

FTA boxes aside, overall growth in shipments of all digital satellite receivers is also being driven by other factors, including a rise in the number of boxes per household in North America, users swapping out their set-top boxes in Europe due to a consolidation of the technology in that region, and new satellite services in India, the survey said. In addition, improved video compression will have an effect, and lower component prices are bringing down the cost of pay-TV boxes as well.