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Sentech to take on DSTV interactive

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Satellite TV provider DSTV, which started rolling out interactive television services this month, is to face competition come May.

State-owned broadcasting signal distributor Sentech has big plans for its own Vivid satellite service and is planning its own television-based browsing and e-mail services. A first-generation "t-commerce" shopping application is already available to around 35 000 users with Vivid decoder boxes.

Vivid is a free-to-air satellite service mostly used in rural areas without terrestrial television coverage. It replaces the failed Astrasat, an analogue service launched at about the same time DSTV first entered the market. Vivid carries the three SABC channels and eTV, and has no subscription fee.

Like DSTV decoders, the Vivid set-top boxes are able to receive data transmissions on the same downlink used for the television channels.

Yesterday Sentech subsidiary Infosat and online shopping site Digitalmall launched a shopping brochure branded Digitalmall.tv, which makes use of the Vivid data channel. Users can access the data channel and browse product information, but must place orders through a Digitalmall call centre. Unlike DSTV, Sentech has no return path in place yet.

However, this is to change soon. The Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) has confirmed that it intends to issue the two licences awarded to Sentech in the recent Telecommunications Amendment to the company in May. One will give Sentech the right to operate an international telecommunications gateway and sell services to the likes of Telkom. The second is for still poorly understood "multimedia services" which government says is intended to promote convergence in the broadcasting sector.

Although not directly linked to the licences, Vivid could add a return path at the same time; the set-top boxes can accept an external modem. Once the return path is set up, a number of services become possible, of which normal Internet browsing is only one.

"We have a t-mail (television e-mail) platform in testing," says Infosat MD Angelo Roussos. An interface to allow ICQ instant messages to be sent to TV subscribers is also in the works.

Such services will likely be paid-for, but by that time Sentech is expected to have a billing infrastructure in place. Roussos says Vivid will be expanded with a bouquet of new channels, and although the free-to-air section will stay in place, new channels will be charged for.

The expansion is also expected to boost the number of Vivid users. Multichoice had around 650 000 digital subscribers by the end of last year.

Digitalmall.tv takes up a fraction of the bandwidth available to Sentech. Roussos says a 400kbps stream is being used to broadcast around 1MB of data continuously in the pilot phase. By increasing the bandwidth and cycle time "we can carry a lot," he says.

The bandwidth used is surplus capacity Sentech carries in the course of its signal distribution business and Digitalmall.tv, described as a joint venture between Infosat and Digitalmall, is not being charged for its use. Companies that want to punt their products through the brochure are to be charged a R1 000 monthly rental.

Digitalmall.tv uses the Interactive Media Provisioning System (IMPS) to translate data directly from the Internet protocol (IP). Developed by Infosat, Roussos says IMPS is a simple, open standard based on XML, and makes it possible to offer just about any one-way data transmission.

"It doesn't matter to us whether you are doing shopping information or educational content," he says.

Although the Sentech interactive service is very similar to that DSTV is rolling out in a phased approach, Roussos says direct competition is not the object.

"We plan to open up a whole new market sector," he says.

Multichoice has welcomed the plans.

"We welcome any attempt by any other player in SA to offer such services," says corporate affairs GM Lebogang Hashatse. "Competition is good for the industry."

Related stories:
Multichoice goes interactive (feature)
DSTV to launch interactive TV, bolsters M-Web

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