Digital distress - TechCentral

Digital distress

[By Duncan McLeod]

Just about everyone in SA’s broadcasting industry has been taken aback by government’s decision to rethink its commitment to the European digital television standard. There are concerns it could set back the country’s digital migration by years.

Communications department director-general Mamodupi Mohlala has made it clear: SA may reverse an agreement with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to adopt the digital video broadcasting (DVB-T) standard for terrestrial television.

SA and other countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) agreed in 2006 that they would implement DVB-T as the country switched away from analogue terrestrial broadcasts.

Government’s decision to consider other standards, including Japan’s integrated services digital broadcasting (ISDB-T) standard, could set back the switch to digital television by years, say industry executives. This could mean SA having to wait much longer to enjoy the benefits of moving to digital.

These benefits include more competition in terrestrial services and therefore more choice for consumers. Digital technology also makes more efficient use of spectrum, so bandwidth previously used for analogue signals can be freed up for wireless broadband services.

Few countries have adopted the ISDB-T standard; Brazil is the largest market where it’s used outside Japan. Curiously, Brazilian president Lula da Silva wrote in a recent column published by the Sunday Times that he looked forward to “a common digital TV standard and to joint development of advanced defence equipment”.

“We want our armaments industry to be a partner of our industrial and technological development strategy,” wrote Da Silva, who plans a state visit to SA soon.

Some broadcasting industry executives have already taken this to mean that SA has decided to ditch DVB-T in favour of ISDB-T — that some backroom deal has been agreed between SA and Brazil and that last week’s standards symposium was a sham.

Ahead of the symposium, Gerhard Petrick of the Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association described the event as “clearly biased against the adopted DVB-T standard” and said it “signals that the department of communications has bought into the sales talk of Japanese and Brazilian lobbyists”.

Mohlala says the department of communications will forward a report and recommendation to communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda, who will make the final decision.

But moving to a different standard could prove problematic for many reasons. It could delay digital migration and add costs to the process, though Mohlala says state-owned signal distributor Sentech has assured her that ditching DVB-T for another standard would not require a write-off of investments already made. Smaller companies that have invested in the technology might not be so fortunate.

Then there’s the need to get the entire SADC region to agree to switch to a new standard. This has to be done to avoid cross-border radio spectrum interference.

And, if SA chooses ISDB-T, it could prove prohibitively expensive for consumers. ISDB-T-based set-top boxes cost substantially more than DVB-T boxes. That must surely be a key consideration for a developing country.

Mohlala has strongly denied that government has signed a deal with the Brazilians over ISDB-T. She says government’s decision to review its commitment to DVB-T is based purely on the needs of SA consumers.

But serious concerns linger among broadcasters. Until the department of communications releases its findings, and until Nyanda pronounces on the subject, it’s unlikely that speculation over backroom deals will go away.

6 Comments

  1. Again, what about all the TVs already being sold with integrated digital tuners?

    If one was a conspiracy theorist, you would think that this would be a way to control the manufacture of set top boxes for political and/or financial gain. DVB-T set top boxes are retailed for US$40 around the world. Great for the consumer, but not good if you want to make an empowerment killing.

  2. Does ISDB-T have any advantages over DVB-T? This and the previous article fails to mention any ISDB-T advantages only DVB-T advantages, thus it feels biased against ISDB-T.

    Not saying ISDB-T is better but there must be a reason the Brazilians and the rest of South America has picked it 🙂

  3. Cristiano Jacobs on

    The reason Brazil chose ISDB-T is because Brazil´s most influencial and powerfull tv network (Globo Network) always had links with Jappanese companies, so they joined forces to save ISDB-T, and expand throughout south america. DVB-T is just as good as a standard. It was all politics and GLOBO´s influence. For South Africa, it wouldn´t make any sense swiching to isdb-t, actualy, it would only cost money and delay for the population. Decoders of isdb-t are more expensive, that´s why Brazil and Japan wants south africa in the group, so prices can come down, but even if south africa adopts. DVB-T and DVB-T2 is by far the best standard in the world, specialy for South Africa!!

  4. Robert Dillware on

    What´s terrible about all this is that the government is going against our own industries and broadcasters, who knows about the subject more than they do. The government must start listening to the south african players involved and not the brazilians, that obviously wants to export to South Africa! Let´s hear what the industry and the broadcasters have to say in our own land before making any decision! Even the Pope knows that DVB T/1 and 2 is better for us!

  5. Joseph Cavalla on

    Hy guys, I would like to tell you a bit about the Brazilian story of Digital TV, so you do not get just one version. The story I will tell you is not about technology but about political dominance as you may recognize below.

    The Brazilian TV standard is just the Japanese ISDB-T standard with inbuilt MPEG4/H.264 coding (instead of MPEG2 coding, used in Japan). This is no real development in fact, although it has been presented as such. Suppliers individually developed products for this upgraded Japanese variant, this was no major issue. Japanese ISDB-T, which was always the most expensive DTV standard (from consumer’s point of view) lost the lead to the Brazilian variant which got even more expensive. Due to the low economies of scale there is no real way to get consumer product prices down. The few countries which adopted the Brazilian Standard plus a few African countries cannot really change that situation. Today, in Brazil, Set top box offerings are scarce, as these devices are too expensive for poor FTA (free to air) viewers, the absolute majority who should de addressed through low cost products. Despite Government insistent promises to deliver STBs at R$100 level, retail prices today start at R$299 (around U$160). These are the SD and low end/quality set top boxes. Acceptable quality is found starting at R$400 (U$220). These prices have been stable during the last year, so no drastic reductions are expected. Take a look at the product searching machine http://compare.buscape.com.br/proc_unico?id=9769&pagina=1&kw=conversor+tv+digital . In physical stores you will barely find such equipments which did not raise any major interest at folks. An TV’s with inbuilt DTV tuner, just the more expensive ones. Small screens usually have no inbuilt DTV tuner and when it is there it has higher cost.

    This is reflected in the Digital TV transmission roll out as well. After 2 and a half years of digital TV transmissions in Brazil, less than 30 cities (out of more than 5.500) count with digital transmissions, three of them with less than ten broadcasters/programs and the rest of the cities counting with just one or two broadcasters/programs. Take a look at http://www.dtv.org.br/materias.asp?menuid=3&id=11 . This is not really a solid digital business model. In fact, high STB prices reduced attractiveness of FTA DTV, which started to loose room to Internet, satellite and even cable PayTV whose offerings are much more attractive for users. During 2009 this vicious circle started to become so evident that the Communications Minister (who personally defended the new standard) told youth “to watch more TV and to avoid staying connected to the Internet” (e.g. http://info.abril.com.br/noticias/internet/ministro-quer-menos-internet-e-mais-tv-20052009-38.shl ).

    The only real development of the “new Brazilian” standard was the middleware called Ginga, designed to support interactivity. It is an alternative to the Japanese Middleware. Two and a half years after starting commercial DTV transmissions, the Brazilian Ginga is not really mature for commercial deployment. Recently suppliers started to deliver TV sets with Internet access and own application software to surf the web, so that relevance of Ginga may slowly fade away. But Brazil offers to his “partners” the “participation in its development” as a major advantage. And there were countries that really believed in the importance of that.

    While other DTV Standards are working on further developments, based on a strong eco-system comprised by standardization bodies, technical and human resources and a backing renowned industry, the “Brazilian standard” does not has any real eco-system. For this reason it has all the ingredients to stay stuck and internationally isolated, similarly to what happened with its analog standard in the past (the PAL-M standard, which was a unique combination of PAL and NTSC standards).

    In times of standard globalization for the benefits of people, with GSM and UMTS becoming global examples, it seems a bit odd bedding on Digital TV niche markets. In fact this all is seems to be framed in a broader political bed. If you read the local news in Brazil you will notice that actual Government is pushing the south-south alignment, making also agreements with Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, etc. to show its importance in aligning secondary markets, as a way to get a permanent sit in the UN.

    THE BEST FTA DIGITAL TV STANDARD FOR A DEVELOPING COUNTRY IS THAT ONE WHO FITS IN THE POCKET OF POOR PEOPLE. THE REST IS DISCUSSION FOR THOSE WHO LIKE TECHNOLOGY AND CAN AFFORD OTHER MEANS OF WATCHING MEDIA. AND FOR THOSE WHO ARE DRIVING POLITICS.