France has finally launched digital terrestrial television, in what is seen by some as the biggest shake-up in French broadcasting since the launch of Canal+ nearly two decades ago.

The French call it TNT – Télévision Numérique Terrestre – but it is being branded as La Télévision Numérique pour Tous, or digital television for all. It is being run as a joint venture between public broadcaster France Televisions and a number of cable and satellite operators.

The new service was launched by the French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Three new channels will be available initially, with up to 14 free-to-air services allocated in all, with further channels authorised from June. The new channels will also be available to Canal Satellite subscribers.

Digital terrestrial reception will be restricted to just 35% of the population from 17 transmission sites, covering Paris, Aquitaine, Bretagne, Marseille, Lille, Lyon and Toulouse. This will increase to 50% of the country by September and reach over 80% by 2007.

So far the majority of the French population has yet to convert to digital television, unlike the UK where six out of ten homes now receive digital services.

In France around 100,000 set-top boxes have been shipped in advance of the launch and several brands have already sold out in supermarkets.

Based on the success of Freeview in the UK, some predict up to a million may be sold in the first year. The vast majority are expected to be basic channel zapper boxes using MPEG-2 and without middleware to support interactive television or the capability to received pay television services. These will start from September, with the option to use MPEG-4, and it is expected that the subscription services will provide customers with new decoders.

Neuf Telecom, which provides an digital television service over broadband telephone connections, has enabled its IPTV set-top boxes to receive the new free-to-view services by simply connecting an ordinary antenna.

Additional reporting by Justin Hewelt in Paris.