Time to clear the picture - TechCentral

Time to clear the picture

[By Duncan McLeod]

The department of communications has thrown SA’s migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television into disarray. It’s time to end all the nonsense around different standards and for the industry to move ahead.

Business leaders in SA have always shown a reluctance to criticise government. Where they have had concerns, they’ve tended to raise these privately, if at all.

So last week’s press conference in Sandton, called by commercial broadcasters e.tv and M-Net, was extraordinary. The CEOs of the two broadcasters — Marcel Golding for e.tv and Patricia Scholtemeyer for M-Net — shared a stage to make it clear exactly what they thought of communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda’s decision to initiate a review of SA’s commitment to the European standard for digital terrestrial television.

First, though, some background.

SA, with its neighbours in the Southern African Development Community, agreed almost five years ago to adopt the European standard for digital television, known as digital video broadcasting terrestrial (DVB-T). Since then, the country has run extensive trials of digital television using DVB-T.

SA has made a commitment to the International Telecommunication Union that it will end all analogue television broadcasts by mid-2015. Among other things, this will allow radio frequency spectrum that is freed up through the migration to be reassigned to telecommunications operators.

But SA’s commercial broadcasters are now warning that the 2015 cut-off date is in jeopardy if the country ditches its commitment to DVB-T and instead opts for Japan’s integrated services digital broadcasting terrestrial standard (ISDB-T), a version of which has been adopted in Brazil and a few smaller markets in South America.

Industry executives fear some sort of deal has been reached between the SA and Brazilian governments that will result in SA adopting ISDB-T. However, the communications department has steadfastly denied this.

But broadcasters say the department is making a hash of things. E.tv’s Golding has been particularly forthright, saying the process has become “quasi-unilateral”.

Based on the evidence, ISDB-T appears to offer no additional value over DVB-T. The list of disadvantages, however, is long. Chief among them is that the cost of ISDB-T decoders — needed to receive digital broadcasts — is significantly higher than DVB-T receivers.

This will place an extra burden on SA consumers and push up the amount of money that will be needed to subsidise decoders for poorer households. Also, ISDB-T skills are relatively scarce, and SA has already invested tens, if not hundreds, of millions of rand in DVB-T infrastructure. There are many other reasons, some of them quite technical, why choosing ISDB-T would be a mistake.

Oddly enough, though, reopening the standards debate could end up paying dividends for the country. The experts say it could make sense for SA to adopt an evolution of the DVB-T standard, known as DVB-T2.

T2 offers about 60% greater “spectral efficiency” than ISDB-T and DVB-T. In other words, you can squeeze more channels into the same amount of spectrum, or use the extra spectrum to offer more terrestrial channels in high definition. The greater efficiency will allow more broadcasters to be licensed, creating greater choice for consumers and a more competitive media landscape.

Though T2 decoders are more expensive, prices are falling rapidly and could be in line with DVB-T boxes by the time SA switches off its analogue broadcasts.

Government says it wants the best standard for SA. That standard is T2. Let’s adopt it, and get on with migration.

9 Comments

  1. I have a question. It looks like most of the actual broadcasting industry (the people with the skills, money, hardware and demand to meet) are set on DVB-T(2). If the DoC decides to appoint ISDB-T as a standard *against* the wishes of those companies, and the general public who will have to pay for the set-top boxes (and subsidize the lower-income households), is it possible to take the DoC to court?

    It doesn’t seem very democratic to just suddenly decide to adopt a standard nobody was prepared for, and last I checked SA was a democracy.

    Even if the court option is not possible, we have one stellar example of a corporation overruling our goverment, why not make another? It’s not as if the DoC is paying for any of this?

    ~ Wogan

  2. I understand the theoretic advantage of having more channels (DBV-T2), but the broadcasters cannot provide content for the few we already have? Surely in Europe more channels makes sense, but not in Africa IMO. Are people losing sight of the real goal?

  3. @nicki The real goal is getting some sort of digital TV into as many hands as possible. DBV-T (being cheaper) caters for that. And that’s what’ being called into question.

    Or is there some other goal?

  4. My excitement over digital TV has waned recently. I’ve been using the DVB-T broadcast to watch some of the soccer matches. Quality on the DVB-T broadcast is great, but whenever there is a lot of movement on screen, the picture breaks up like dstv does during a storm, sometimes completely losing picture and sound. When there is not much movement, the picture is perfect (like DVD). No amount of aerial repositioning helps. I get near perfect analogue reception from the transmitters nearby so I doubt this has to do with a weak signal.

    Seems to be a bandwidth issue, so I am not very hopeful of getting high-def broadcast if this is the user experience with std-def. Maybe we need to live next to a transmitter to get stutter-free video. Hopefully the more bandwidth-efficient DVB-T2 will solve that.

  5. James Bistrely on

    Upgrading to DVB-T2 is much more inteligent and cheaper, given the fact that 40% of South Africa is already covered with DVB-T! To throw 40% coverege on the trash just like that is something that only a CONTAMINATED DOC could have the courage in doing! Burning public money takes courage and proves complete lack of undestanding by govenment staff, totaly influenced by lobby forces that are promising the world, just like Parreira did with our soccer team, but industry and local players knows that defending South Africa is looking at cost-benefit, and cost-benefit indicates that dvb-t/dvb-t2 is cheaper and better! Ask Namibia if they are having any problem with DVB-T? Ask Australia? Ask SADIBA? They made trials all over South Africa with enormous success with DVB-T, so if we have 40% coverage already done with DVB-T, let´s simply upgrade to DVB-T2 instead of burning citizen´s money!!!!!!!!!! Using more than 40% of our brains is what it takes to decide on DVB-T2 for the remaing 60%! Wake up DOC!

  6. Motlale Savuka on

    After comparing DVB-T2, ISDB-T (brazil), ISDB-T (japan), DVB-T (world), I must confess that what impressed me the most was that DVB-T2 is far superior than both isdb-t from japan and brazil and even dvb-t.
    DVB-T2 delivers 50% more channels than ISDB-T, and with DVB-T2, existing frequency plans wouldn´t have to be changed in South Africa! DVB-T2 is the most inteligent choice for South Africa, in my opinion! We must have a “DVB-T2 TRIAL” in South Africa before the doc takes any decision!

  7. I agree with Motlale, we´ve got to have a DVB-T2 DEMO right now in South Africa!!!

  8. Carlos Ferreira on

    Dear Minister Nyanda,

    Many South Africans are asking for a DVB-T2 trial in our nation, so, when can we arrange a DVB-T2 demontration in South Africa????????????????????????

  9. Linda Scarany on

    Parreira guided us in soccer to a disaster, now, is Lula guiding us in digital tv?
    Not a good idea….