Expensive digital TV STBs predicted for SA

South Africans can look forward to purchasing expensive set top boxes (STBs) in order to receive digital TV signals.

This is according to Masa Sugano, first secretary of economic and commercial affairs at the embassy of Japan in Pretoria.

Sugano is involved in the battle between ISDB-T and DVB-T to become the South African digital broadcasting standard. Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting – Terrestrial (ISDB-T) is a standard for digital television and radio broadcasting developed in Japan.

DVB-T vs. ISDB-T: The war rages on

Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial (DVB-T) – a digital broadcasting standard developed in Europe – and ISDB-T have been at loggerheads in South Africa since early this year.

The battle began in earnest when ex-Director General of the Department of Communications (DoC), Mamodupi Mohlala, announced that South Africa hadn’t selected a standard for digital broadcasting.

Her statement was rubbished by various industry players, including M-Net and e.tv.

Ex-Minister of Communications, Siphiwe Nyanda, revealed later that South Africa’s chosen standard remains DVB-T, but that recent technological advances caused the whole SADC region to “explore the possibility of using a different standard.”

Standards from the DVB family are already used in South Africa for satellite broadcasts and ICASA recently awarded MultiChoice and e.tv spectrum for mobile broadcasting using the DVB-H standard.

Despite the standards already in use, as well as the policies already accepted and the regulations already published with DVB-T in mind, South Africa’s DTT standard is being reconsidered and alternatives such as ISDB-T are on the table.

According to Gustavo Rosas from the Brazillian Embassy in Pretoria, the offer of ISDB-T is a partnership between Japan and Brazil.

Standard doesn’t determine STB cost

One of the criticisms levelled at ISDB-T is that its set top boxes are more expensive than those made to decode DVB-T signals.

A report prepared by Farncombe Technology for the National Association of Broadcasters in South Africa (NAB) listed the high cost of STBs in Brazil, which uses a version of ISDB-T, as one of the factors discouraging adoption of DTT.

Many attribute this high cost to a lack of economies scale. The argument is that because DVB-T is much more widely adopted than ISDB-T, STBs are produced in higher volumes which decreases the cost.

Sugano said it’s not the choice of standard that determines the cost of STBs, but industrial policy.

He explained that lack of competition in the STB space in Brazil, both domestically and through imports, is what prevents STBs from being available for cheaper.

According to Sugano, the SANS specification for STBs in South Africa as published by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), sets us up for a similar fate.

“This is a recipe for an expensive STB,” Sugano said at a recent technical demonstration of ISDB-T.

According to the standard’s abstract it sets out the minimum technical requirements for a STB decoder for free-to-air, standard definition, digital terrestrial television (DTT) in South Africa.

“Requirements that deal with performance are understandable enough,” said Sugano, “but there are many others, such as those relating to the receiving of data broadcasting and EPGs (Electronic Programme Guides), that in our view should be best left to the free decision of manufacturers.”

There are ISDB-T set top boxes available for around $30 (US), Sugano said.

M-Net and e.tv estimated that the unit cost (not retail price) of a DVB-T STB would be around $45 for STBs compliant to the South African specification, assuming an order of 50 000 units. They estimated an ISDB-T STB at $85 by contrast.

Gerhard Petrick, who is active within the technical committee of SADIBA, explained that the SANS specification was mostly driven by the DoC. Requirements such as interactivity and STB control came from the DoC and not industry.

“Without these things the DoC deemed mandatory for a minimum spec STB one could very well derive a lower cost STB,” said Petrick.

Allowing cheaper, lower spec set top boxes seems to require sacrificing the knowledge that all your citizens will have televisions with a certain minimum capability, however.

Farncombe warns that optional specifications risk being ignored. “As manufacturers compete for prices and time-to-market they are more likely to avoid implementing additional features,” the report says.

“As a result, the base of devices with middleware and return paths to receive advanced interactive services is fragmented and may not provide the minimum addressable market for broadcasters to offer new services economically.”

If lower cost STBs are the priority, Sugano suggests that the industry should be allowed to produce lower specification models in order to reach poorer households.

“I believe that competition, both globally but also through the participation of more domestic SA manufacturers, would be the key to affordable receivers in this country,” said Sugano.

“This would be the case regardless of what transmission standards South Africa adopts,” he concluded.

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Expensive digital TV STBs predicted for SA