What is Free-to-Air TV?

By Chris Moore

Many free stations are available worldwide.
i tv control and tv 3 image by chrisharvey from Fotolia.com

Free-to-air TV refers to television stations that are broadcast around the world with no encryption to block reception. They are different from local air stations in that they broadcast worldwide rather than just locally. Anyone can receive these TV stations without paying for the service, provided they have the equipment to do so.

FTA vs. Standard Broadcast

Free-to-air stations use satellites to transmit their signals, much like most cable and satellite stations do. This is where they differ from most free broadcast stations that only broadcast through antennas. There are a few localized TV stations that transmit over satellites to make them free-to-air stations.

FTA vs. Cable/Satellite

Free-to-air stations do not encrypt their signals when they transmit them, as opposed to most cable/satellite stations. This is why anyone can receive the stations without subscribing to a provider that decrypts the signal and/or provides the customer with the equipment to do so.


To receive free-to-air TV, people still need special equipment, which is similar to the equipment used for satellite TV packages. A satellite dish is required, along with an FTA receiver that can receive MPEG-2 video; these are one-time expenses as opposed to the monthly subscription that a cable/satellite package requires. A number of retailers sell these receivers and equipment, and they often provide lists of the available FTA channels.


Several countries around the world have multiple free-to-air TV stations available for reception. The number and type of stations available in a country depend on the types of dishes sold in that country and the frequencies they can receive. Europe is a leader in this area, with countries like Germany receiving more than 100 such stations. Europe's territorial stations, ironically, are encrypted for copyright purposes, but most dishes sold in those countries include the decryption technology needed.


Because free-to-air stations don't get money from subscription fees, they must generate revenue elsewhere. This usually comes from corporate advertising, tax dollars and/or public donations, much like standard commercial or public broadcast stations receive money.