Digital TV conspiracy: Is govt lying?

Candice Jones
By Candice Jones
Johannesburg, 10 Jun 2010

Explosive evidence has come to light implicating the Department of Communications (DOC) in a campaign to prevent the European digital TV standard, DVB, from being implemented in Southern African countries.

Rumours are also circulating that there may be a power station on the cards for SA, if it agrees to move with Brazil on the Japanese standard.

The DOC recently instigated a review of SA's decision to implement the DVB standard, introducing the Japanese TV standard as a secondary option, which has been implemented by several South American countries.

Several independent sources have told ITWeb that during a meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders in technology, held in April, a representative from the department indicated the local trials on the European standard had been riddled with technical difficulties.

According to a press release issued on the SADC Web site, officials at the sessions earlier this year met in a “special session” to discuss the possibility of changing the already entrenched DVB standard to a new Japanese standard, ISDB, which has been redeveloped and deployed by the Brazilians.

Experts representing both standards were called to give a detailed description of each and prove the benefits for the SADC countries. However, only the Brazilian representative was given access to the closed special session.

The meeting was also attended by a representative of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the body governing the process of digital migration globally.

The SADC countries agreed to roll out a unified standard for digital migration to allow the free flow of skills and technologies between the countries in the region. They have also agreed to free up the analogue spectrum by 2013.

The new information has reinforced speculation that the department would prefer to run with the Japanese standard, disregarding years of planning in favour of enticing trade agreements with Brazil.

SADC already on DVB

Speaking to ITWeb from Mauritius, one of the leading engineers governing Mauritius's digital TV migration, Amoordalingum Pather, confirmed he had been part of the closed session at the conference.

He says a representative from the DOC had explained that the DVB standard in SA had been a failure. According to Pather, the representative from SA told those present in a closed meeting that the department has a report which shows the trials on DVB in SA have been riddled with technical failures.

Pather says he was surprised by the details given to those present in the meeting, since both MNet and etv had shown how successful their implementation of DVB has been. He also says Mauritius's own implementation of DVB has been exceptionally successful.

Mauritius has almost completed its digital migration process, with nearly 100% coverage and 80% of the country already watching digital TV, Pather explains. He says the country will have completed its migration process by next year.

“There is no way we can change the standard now; we will have to redo the entire migration again,” he notes.

Other countries in the SADC region, which have already started migration to the DVB standard, include Namibia and Tanzania. In other parts of Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Ghana and Nigeria have all started migrating to the European standard.

No change

Gerhard Petrick, a member of the Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association, was also present at the meetings; however, he says he was not called into the private session with the leadership representatives.

He says that, judging by the comments of the people in the closed meeting, there was definitely a discrepancy between what was said in open forum and what was said behind closed doors.

The department has hit back at the allegations, saying it can't comment on what was supposedly said by ITWeb's sources.

The department's spokesman, Tiyani Rikhotso, says the DOC does not understand the attention the decision to review the standards has generated. He has reiterated the statement communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda made to Cabinet a few weeks ago, saying that no decision has been made on the matter.

“We have not taken a decision to change to any standard. Period!”

The department has not confirmed whether it has a report detailing the technical failures of the local trials on DVB, and has lambasted the industry for the noise generated by broadcasters, which have planned for digital TV roll out using the DVB standard.

“It is important to note that government has not taken any decision to change the DVB-T standard as approved by Cabinet. We, therefore, do not understand what warrants all these noises we are hearing from some so-called industry players,” he adds.

However, he says government has to look at what would be best for SA. “The minister stated unequivocally when he presented to the Portfolio Committee on Communications last month that we are simply conducting a review of what's the best possible deal for SA now given that technology has evolved since the adoption by cabinet of the DVB-T standard.”

Cabinet ratified the decision to go with DVB in 2008 and the department says Cabinet will have to do the same if the notion of changing is presented to the committee. “Any change to this effect would be done in consultation with concerned parties and a proposal to change the standard would require the blessings of Cabinet,” adds Rikhotso.

It will also have to pass through the South African Standards Bureau before it becomes an adopted standard.

Why now?

The department's explanation of why it has decided to review the standard at this late stage in the digital migration process has left many in the industry cold. It has also sparked speculation that more concrete reasons are being kept under wraps, specifically since a change now will cost government into the billions to refund Sentech and the SABC.

The national signal distributor has already installed transmitters for the DVB-T system, covering about 40% of SA's population.

Speculation has it that there may be a power station on the cards for SA, if it agrees to the late switch.

The SADC countries in March signed a cooperation framework agreement with Brazil that will see the transfer of skills and technology. One of the specific focus areas of this agreement is to be on energy.

SA also has also recently visited Brazil, a move which the minister explained to Cabinet prompted the decision to review the standard in the first place. There is also talk that the department has already decided to switch standards; however, it has vehemently denied this.

Accusations made

Meanwhile, Brazil is unhappy with the outcome of the meeting held in April this year, and has laid a complaint against the representative from the ITU that was there. The complaint has labelled the representative biased and questioned his motives.

The complaint to the ITU states that the representative from the union implied that if Africa decided to change to the Japanese standard, that the ITU would not support the decision.

In a bid to provide ITU member states with an explanation on the complaint, an explanatory document has been released detailing the matter.

The document reads: “It follows that formal complaints and accusations of bias, lying, withholding information, supplying incorrect information and of trying to influence the decisions of the member states by 'strongly advocating in favour' of DVB-T are preposterous, unfounded and based on ignorance of the Geneva 2006 agreement.”

The letter also says that even though some people might not like the responses given at the meeting in April, SADC countries are all signatories on the agreement signed in 2006, which allots the region (region one) to the DVB standard.

“It must be further noted that Brazil has aggressively and openly been lobbying its interests in the SADC region and has in particular been lobbying SADC countries to adopt the ISDB-T standard for digital terrestrial television,” the document continues.

Member states are annoyed that Brazil, which is not even part of the region, has laid a complaint against the ITU on behalf of the SADC countries.

Just nine months

Local broadcasters will want a resolution on which digital standard should be implemented as soon as possible, since many are ready and willing to start the digital migration process.

MNet and etv presented to media this week a successful trial digital TV service on the DVB standard, and have lambasted the delay caused by the standards review. Both broadcasters say that if the department decides tomorrow to continue using the existing standard, the broadcasters will be ready to release a commercial digital TV product in nine months.

However, they agree the expected deadline for SA's analogue switch off in November next year is now completely impossible, since decoder manufacturing and roll-out will not happen in a year.

There is also a real possibility that SA will not make the international deadline of 2015 if any more delays are pushed into the mix.