The U.S. Army’s command in Europe (USAREUR) has stopped providing thousands of troops free access to the American Forces Network after deciding not to renew a multi-million dollar contract with a German provider of television service there.
The move leaves around 30,000 military troops and their families without access to American television programming unless they lease or purchase a decoder box to receive around a half-dozen defense-backed television stations.
The American Forces Network is a multiplex of television stations that aggregates American TV and movie content from broadcast and cable channels in the United States. Content aired on AFN is re-broadcast through special non-commercial arrangements with program distributors like Comcast (NBC), Walt Disney Company (ABC), Fox Corporation, ViacomCBS, AT&T and the National Football League.
Programs are transmitted for a nominal fee in exchange for an agreement that AFN will not air commercial advertisements against the shows (AFN airs public service announcement and short military-centric news updates during ad breaks instead).
Until 2005, one channel of AFN programming was available over-the-air to service members and their families in around three dozen European television markets. The channels were broadcast in the NTSC 3.58 format used by American television sets, making them largely unavailable to German households where PAL television sets are standard.
AFN’s other multiplex channels — including channels themed around news, sports and movies — became available to service members and families living off military bases and in other parts of Europe via a special satellite downlink that was de-scrambled using a leased or purchase satellite decoder. The satellite signal was available to receive for free.
In the mid-1990s, USAREUR and the U.S. Air Force in Europe (USAFE) arranged to have AFN’s multiplex signal transmitted via cable to military barracks and family housing through cable. German contractor TKS Cable won the right to wire the barracks and other military housing for cable television service.
In August 2000, USAREUR and USAFE began subsidizing the cost of delivering AFN programming to military barracks and family housing, making AFN’s multiplex signal available to thousands of service members stationed in Germany for free. A handful of Britain-based channels, including Sky One and Channel 5 UK, were also available to troops and their families for a small fee.
In 2010, AFRTS ended their over-the-air transmission of AFN television as European countries, including Germany, began switching off their analog broadcasts for digital ones. The military cited the wide availability of AFN programming on cable and satellite as a prime reason for shutting off its over-the-air signal. A program was launched to lease satellite decoder boxes to service members for free.
Earlier this year, USAREUR announced it would stop subsidizing the cost of providing AFN signals via TKS Cable to individual housing barracks and military housing in areas of Germany where Army bases are still operational. The move was expected to save USAREUR around $7 million over the course of five years.
The Army’s move to end its contract with TKS Cable was first reported by the Stars & Stripes newspaper in September.
Military officials said the move was intended to coincide with a trend of troops signing up for streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and others for their entertainment choices.
But the decision also leaves thousands of troops and military families unable to access live sports, news and other programming, some of which was only available through AFN, unless they rent a TKS Cable decoder box to receive the channels. The leased box costs €10 a month ($12 a month).
The decoder box lease program may eventually encourage soldiers to upgrade to a costlier package of service that provides more channels. Those packages, called EasyGo, start at around €28 a month ($33 a month) and include access to live feeds from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WPIX (Channel 11), WGN-TV (Channel 9) and Starz.
Military families living on-post or in civilian housing are still able to purchase a satellite dish and decoder box to receive AFN programming for free. The cost of the decoder box is around $230.
USAFE officials said AFN’s multiplex channels will continue to be offered via TKS Cable for free to those living in Air Force family housing as well as in common areas of single soldier barracks.