DUBAI // Forced until now to pay for expensive subscriptions to cable or satellite television, residents could soon have another option - dozens of terrestrially broadcast digital channels, free for anyone with an aerial and a set-top box.
The switch to digital, announced last week, could also pave the way for faster mobile internet services.
While the plan has clear technical benefits, whether it will resonate with consumers remains to be seen.
Last Tuesday, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said analogue television broadcasts would cease by 2013, to be replaced by digital.
Digital broadcasts, already available on cable and satellite, offer sharper, fuzz-free pictures and potentially far more channels.
Predicting "tens of new channels", Nick Grande, the managing director of Channel Sculptor, a Dubai television consultancy, said the switch would "give consumers more choice on where they will be able to get their television from".
"An added benefit could also be that we get more UAE-specific programming as opposed to what you get on NileSat, which is catering for about 25 countries."
Digital television is already widely available throughout the emirates via satellite and internet protocol television (IPTV) services, which are run by Etisalat and du.
But some viewers might be lured away by the offer of free quality television channels - as might some currently watching pirated satellite TV.
"For consumers the most important thing isn't the technology, it's the choice they have, and if digital terrestrial can offer that choice then they could very well switch away from satellite," said Santino Saguto, a partner at Value Partners consultancy.
He said the advantage of digital terrestrial was that it required only a set-top box and a realignment of existing aerials to pick up the signal.
The TRA has not said how many of the digital terrestrial channels will be free, or what other services will be available.
But Matthew Reed, an analyst with Informa Telecoms and Media, said he expected most of the channels would be free.
"It will give viewers the option to have high-definition, interactive and content-on-demand services," he said. "However, the appetite for pay TV is moderate at best in the UAE because people prefer not to pay, so I'm not sure how that will play out."
He said viewers could be given the option of a free basic package or a premium one with sport and films, as in other countries.
In the longer term, the biggest benefit will be the broadcast spectrum that will be freed up. Analogue television is broadcast on frequencies between 700MHz and 800MHz and, once the analogue signal is switched off, those frequencies could instead be used for the next generation of super-fast "4G" mobile phones.
Jawad Abbassi, the founder and general manager of media analysts the Arab Advisory Group, also believes the switch is likely to have consumer benefits away from just newer channels.
"The thing about analogue TV is that it takes up a lot of the broadcast spectrum, which can be used for other things," Mr Abbassi said. "Once it's finally switched off, that extra capacity can be used for improving mobile phone or other telecommunications."
However he said that because many people already watched satellite or IPTV, the overall effect would be negligible.
And viewers, it seems, are inclined to agree.
"I'm with du," said Paul Dickson, a 34-year-old Briton who is an avid television watcher. "It's just more convenient to have one bill that includes your phone, internet and TV. I mostly watch the football, so unless it's cheaper on the new system then it's not worth the hassle for me to go with that option."
Subhash Joshi, 32, an Indian expatriate, said he would wait and see how the technology developed before deciding to change from his Etisalat service.
"If they have the main Indian channels, or have good channels that you can't get anywhere else, then I will seriously have a look at it," he said. "But if the channels aren't the ones I'm interested in then there's no point in me switching."
No one from the TRA was available for comment.