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SA needs to fast track digital TV

Read time 6min 20sec

The long-awaited Southern African Development Community (SADC) decision to use the European standard as the framework for migrating to digital TV means the region only has two years in which to switchover.

Communication ministers in the region elected to go with the latest European standard, DVB-T2, but also indicated any other standard can be used as long as it complies with technical parameters contained in a 2006 document. This has left the door ajar for ISDB-T proponents to plug their technology.

The long-awaited decision by SADC communications ministers this week has been warmly welcomed as it finally provides some clarity as to which standard the region will use. Adoption of one standard throughout the region is vital to make sure there isn't cross-border broadcast interference.

Yet, the industry warns that SA must move quickly to meet the SADC switch-off deadline of November 2013. Internationally, analogue will be turned off in mid-2015. However, local manufacturers can finally start planning for migration to digital television, as SA's decision is expected to be announced within the next few weeks.

It seems increasingly likely that the country will adopt the European standard, as deputy communications minister Obed Bapela let the cat out of the bag earlier this month when he said: “SA's position is to reaffirm Cabinet's original commitment to the European (DVB-T) standard.”

It is anticipated most SADC countries will adopt the European DVB-T2 standard, which is an upgrade to the DVB-T standard already in use in several countries around the world. The decision also allows countries rolling out DVB-T to continue doing so, with the ultimate aim of moving to DVB-T2.

SA has yet to make an official announcement, but an onerous condition in the statement makes it all but impossible to get ISDB-T implemented anywhere within SADC.

Hitting pause

SA's own digital migration process stalled earlier this year when the department said it was pondering the use of the Brazilian upgrade to the Japanese ISDB-T standard, putting a 2006 Cabinet decision, to go with DVB-T, in jeopardy.

The industry was angered as more than R700 million has been spent on getting ready to switchover to DVB-T when SA turns off analogue broadcast. Sentech has been rolling out transmitters and, so far, has about 30% of SA covered, aiming to reach 60% by March.

Set-top box (STB) manufacturers also geared up in anticipation of needing to manufacture at least 10 million decoders for the local market. The boxes are required to convert the digital signal for viewing on older, analogue television sets.

However, government's decision to re-look its initial decision put several smaller manufacturers in jeopardy and Altech CEO Craig Venter threatened to sue government if it implemented ISDB-T.

Fast forward

Digital Video Broadcasting association chairman Philip Laven says the SADC decision is the crucial first step for moving ahead with the switchover.

“However, it needs to be quickly followed by urgent action in each country, starting with the launch of digital terrestrial TV services as soon as possible so that consumers can start preparing themselves for analogue switch-off.”

Bertus Bresler, who heads up Reunert's STB project, says the SADC decision finally provides some clarity on which standard SA will use to migrate to digital TV. He says the clarity allows companies such as Reunert to gear up for production. Reunert is ready to roll out either DVB-T or DVB-T2 boxes, he says.

However, government still faces a tight time frame if it wants to turn digital TV on within a year, says Bresler. He explains that there are several issues that still need to be wrapped up before production can start, such as the issue of STB control, which still needs to be finalised.

Set-top box controls need to be decided upon by broadcasters. The control is designed to prevent locally-produced boxes working outside of SA if they have been stolen.

In addition, once the green light has been pushed on the production line, government's scheme for ownership support strategy to get subsidised boxes to those who need them, needs to be finalised soon, says Bresler. Cabinet has earmarked about R2.45 billion to subsidise boxes for the poorest households in SA.

Bresler says SA needs to move quickly, as it will still take several years to migrate the entire country, because of its geographical and social diversity.

However, as the SADC ministers have finally provided some clarity, local manufacturers can start planning and could still benefit from the opportunity to sell boxes into other SADC countries that decide to deploy either DVB-T or DVB-T2, he adds.

Slightly ajar

The SADC decision, announced after a meeting this week in Zambia, included a clause that allows countries within the region to implement any other standard, as long as it complies with stipulations included in a 2006 agreement signed in Geneva (GE06) under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The Geneva GE06 agreement sets out the technical standards for digital television infrastructure and broadcast consumer equipment such as televisions and decoders. Each member SADC state, including SA, signed the agreement.

Laven says, back in September, it was thought that one or two countries would actively oppose the recommendation in favour of DVB-T2. As a result, he says, the “get-out clause was devised to allow such countries to accept the report”.

“Given the strength of support for DVB-T2 expressed by the member states at the meeting, in Lusaka, on Wednesday, it is now very unlikely that ISDB-T will be deployed anywhere in the SADC region.” Laven presented on DVB-T2 in Lusaka, Zambia, earlier this week.

Laven says GE06 was not drawn up with ISDB-T in mind. Bresler explains it will be difficult for countries to implement ISDB-T as the standard does not currently comply with GE06, and could take as long as a year to be approved by the ITU.

Determined

Masa Sugano, first secretary in the SA Japanese Embassy's economic and commercial unit, says the SADC decision “essentially implies that countries are free to choose DVB-T2, DVB-T, or ISDB-T”.

“From what we gathered from those attending the meeting, initially, the regulators and senior officials involved in the preparation had prepared a recommendation more thoroughly pumping for DVB-T2, but this was made more flexible after some robust debate,” says Sugano.

Sugano adds that Angola will proceed with rolling out ISDB-T and Botswana is gearing up for a comparative trial next month. “Japan will continue to offer ISDB-T as a proven alternative for social transformation in the broadcasting sector to various targeted countries in the SADC region.”

In addition, Sugano argues that it would be possible to get ISDB-T ratified in terms of GE06 if “certain procedural steps are taken. The main condition is that the alternative standard does not create more interference than DVB-T, which can be and has been demonstrated at the ITU.”

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