The transition to Digital TV

The world is moving from analog to digital broadcasting to exploit the latter’s advantages in terms of capacity (spectrum efficiency) and the quality and capabilities (technical, not content) of the audio and video services that can be delivered in digital format. Furthermore part of the UHF band used by many analog TV channels can then be freed for use by mobile services as agreed at the WRC-07 (World Radiocommunication Conference), at a time when the need for additional bandwidth for mobile services is becoming urgent.

However, this transition (to DTT or Digital Terrestrial Television) poses significant economic issues for broadcasters and for users of the large installed bases of analog TV sets who receive their TV signals over-the-air. Among the key issues associated with DTT are:

  1. Establishment of a National Plan and schedule and organizational framework and responsibilities for DTT implementation
  2. Spectrum policy and management
    1. Allocation or re-allocation of spectrum to broadcasters and to mobile service
    2. Selection of DTT standard
    3. Policy for mobile TV
  3. Costs
    1. Broadcasters
      1. Digital transmitters to meet coverage obligation
      2. Simulcasting
      3. Production of digital content
    2. Households
    3. Digital TV receivers (D/A (digital to analog) converters and/or new digital TV sets) and possibly new antennas for reception
  4. Public financing
    1. Financial aid to broadcasters to meet digital coverage targets
    2. Subsidies for households to acquire digital-capable reception equipment
  5. Information campaigns to ensure that residents prepare for DTT in a timely and efficient manner
  6. Related policy issues
    1. For example, digital “must carry” rules on cable operators.

Not surprisingly the choice of DTT standard in various countries involves intense lobbying by political and industrial interests as well as technical assessments of the qualities of major alternatives which include the European DVB, the Japanese ISDB (and its Brazilian international version SBTVD or ISDB-I), the U.S. ATSC, and the Chinese DMB standards. DVB claims to have been adopted in countries with a total of some 2.5 billion inhabitants, in contrast to about 500 million each for ISDB (Japan plus all of  South America with the exceptions of Colombia and Uruguay (DVB)) and for ATSC (principally the three countries of North America), with 1.3 billion for DMB in China.

Two countries that have already completed their digital transition (Spain and the U.S.) offer contrasting examples. In Spain no public subsidies were provided for households to acquire D/A converters for DVB signals, which were available at typical prices of €25-30 (or $ 33-40). In the U.S. every household was entitled to up to two vouchers of $40 each using funds authorized by Congress to purchase D/A decoders that were offered for between $40-80.

In South Africa plans for DTT have been complicated by the possibility that the country may change its earlier choice of DVB in favor of SBTVD. There are three main arguments against this change:

  1. As part of ITU Region 1 it makes sense to adopt the European standard
  2. Any change at this point will entail substantial economic costs and delays as broadcasters and manufacturers have to write off at least some of the investments they have already made
  3. TV viewers (or, and/or) public subsidies may incur substantially higher costs to pay for D/A converters for SBTVD than for DVB.

Pressure to adopt SBTVD is coming from Brazil, which is flexing its economic and financial muscles to establish itself as a player to be reckoned with on the global geopolitical stage. The technical arguments advanced in favor of SBTVD include claims that it is better suited to deliver a common and hence combined less expensive infrastructure for DTT and mobile TV network deployments, while any comparative price disadvantages for D/A converters and set top boxes will soon be overcome.

Two contrasting examples of proposed changes in DTT standard may be cited. Argentina announced its intent to change its choice of ATSC three years after its original decision in 2005. SBTVD was officially adopted as its DTV standard in August, 2009. In Colombia a similar change of standard (but from DVB to SBTVD) was rumored to be in the works in late 2009. However any intent to make this change was publicly denied by the National Commission for Television. The country is proceeding actively along its DTT transition path based on DVB. A key difference between Argentina and Colombia is that no significant progress had been made in the former to implementing ATSC, whereas in Colombia the process of implementing DVB was already well underway.

The date originally announced for the completion of the digital transition in South Africa is November 1st, 2011 which was already highly ambitious.  It is inconceivable that this schedule could be adhered to if the digital standard were to be changed at this point, nor is it clear what might be accomplished or how rapidly under this circumstance.

A change from DVB to SBTVD in South Africa could and should only be justified with major commitments from SBTVD advocates to delivering a substantial, credible, differentiated and widespread set of financial and other benefits, to compensate for the costs, disruption and delays triggered by the change. These benefits would have to be firmly and clearly defined and measurable, with penalties for failure by those making the commitments to meet them. The benefits would have to cover multiple constituencies including broadcasters, TV viewers, and audio-video equipment manufacturers in South Africa, as well as entities responsible for public funding of the DTT transition.

Furthermore any decision to change must consider international as well as national consequences, such as the:

  1. Will and ability of the South African Government to persuade other African countries to adopt the SBTVD standard,
  2. Coordination of frequency planning with other SADC countries if they adopt or stay with DVB, and
  3. Implications for South African audio/video equipment manufacturers in exports and the domestic market, such as their:
    1. Access to SBTVD markets in South America, given the agreements already reached between Brazil and Japan
    2. Competitiveness if they lack  a domestic DVB market in other African markets using the DVB standard
    3. Competitiveness – and proportion of the value-added they will be able to contribute – in supplying SBTVD equipment in South Africa.

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The transition to Digital TV