Digging the foundations for digital TV

A glimpse was given last week of South Africa’s digital broadcast future—and of the wrangles about who might control it. The somewhat fuzzy picture came in via a 350-page report by a task force set up by the government and called the digital broadcasting migration working group (WG).

The WG’s wide-ranging document recommends a road ahead against the backdrop of enormous complexities, conflicts and costs of moving the nation’s broadcasting into the digital era.

By switching from analogue to digital transmissions, South Africa will enjoy better-quality images and sound, and free up scarce radio frequency for new broadcast and data services. 

What emerges from the WG report are intensely different interests between consumers, broadcasters and signal distributors in moving to a fully digital system:

  • Broadcasters want a quick transition to avoid a lengthy period of paying double to distribute digital alongside continuing analogue signals. But consumers will baulk at buying new technology to receive digital, unless perhaps the broadcasters invest in offering extra digital services.
  • Radio businesses, according to the WG, especially want to see a shorter migration time.
    Radio is reluctant to hold back during a long transition, because digital TV could marginalise it by offering audio channels as well. A snag is that most digital audio will need to use frequencies that are already used by analogue TV transmission. The WG proposes that M-Net urgently migrate its viewers on to DStv to free at least one analogue frequency for digital radio use.
  • If digital broadcasting were to be done via satellite, it would be cheaper for consumers and broadcasters than terrestrial delivery. But South Africa’s signal provider Sentech wouldn’t want to see its ground-based infrastructure become redundant. In a compromise benefiting Sentech most, the WG proposes “a hybrid platform approach” with terrestrial TV distribution (known as DTT) as the main vehicle, and satellite (known as DTH) for patching the gaps.
  • The broadcasters and the signal distributors are also at loggerheads over who would control the airwaves in a digital world. The dispute is over who gets the rights to the frequencies when current analogue broadcast licences are changed to digitally based ones in the next 18 months.
Each side wants an airwave licence—because digital transmission will allow a single frequency also to deliver profitable datacasting, video and audio downloads and e-shopping. South Africa’s law is ambiguous as to who will get frequency licences—the WG suggests both parties should share it, but Sentech insists the rights must go to a signal distributor.

About the only thing the various parties agree on is that the government should deploy taxpayers’ money to foot most of the digital migration bill (a cost that Sentech has estimated at R10-billion). The WG proposes that the government dangle various carrots to make transition happen:

  • subsidised set-top boxes for consumers;
  • subsidised content production for digital broadcasting;
  • exemption for existing broadcasters from local content and public service obligations on their digital broadcasts;

  • relief for existing broadcasters from licence fees during the transition period to exclusive digital transmission;
  • relaxing control and cross-ownership limitations;
  • reviewing copyright law so that broadcasters don’t have to pay added royalties for content going out on digital as well as analogue platforms during the transition; and
  • exemption of broadcasters from needing new licences for any additional non-broadcast digital services (if these make up less than 20% of total service).
So, when might all this start and how long will it take till analogue stops? The WG says that radio can continue as long as it likes on FM and AM, even if it starts digital output at an early stage.

For TV, the proposal is for a “managed switchover approach”, to be determined by a national forum of stakeholders, rather than the government or the regulator alone.

In this vision, analogue TV broadcasting would continue until 2015. This timetable would allow for affordable prices for the set-top boxes needed to receive digital TV signals. Three phases are envisaged:

  • “Digital switch-on”, 2007/08: A national strategy is developed and existing licences converted. Terrestrial infrastructure is upgraded to DTT in the bigger cities. There are consumer awareness campaigns, set-top boxes launched and some steps taken towards digital radio transmissions and receiver sales.
  • “Digital switchover” officially starts in 2008. Some TV channels go out on DTT; the remaining terrestrial infrastructure is upgraded. By 2010, all TV services will have to send a digital feed alongside analogue.
  • “Analogue switch-off”, 2012-2015: Roll-out of government-subsidised set-top boxes, and an area-to-area switch-off based on household take-up having reached 85%. All remaining analogue TV will terminate in 2015.
  • However, what the WG underestimates in all this is how mobile broadcasting (using DVB-H) will increasingly converge with large-screen display devices.

    Its report does not discuss the potential of cellphones to replace set-top boxes and link directly to a TV set. It also ignores experiments in the United States where miniature data projectors are built into cellphones—portending a future where the phones project digital TV images independently of TV sets.

    There’s an even bigger issue signalled, but not elaborated, in the WG statement—“it is increasingly being recognised that broadcasting will not be a one-way communication service in future”.

    The point is that the foundations for future digital broadcasting mean that whether by DTT (Sentech), DTH (satellite) or DVB-H (mobile), not the signal distributors, the broadcasters or the phone companies will call the shots.

    Instead, it will be the consumers turned producers, and audiences turned casters, who will rule the broadcast landscape. Roll on digital migration.

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