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Sep 21, 2012

Digital migration may lay platform for new content-rich broadcasting era

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The official launch of South Africa’s digital migration project, which will be held in the Northern Cape from October 2 to 3, marks the start of the country’s long-awaited three-phase move from analogue broadcasting to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

The Department of Communication (DoC) will switch on the digital signal for 20 set-top boxes (STBs), of which ten, based in a township near Kimberley, will receive terrestrial signals, while the remaining ten, located around the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, will receive direct-to-home (DTH) satellite signals.

The migration was initially planned to start on September 26; however, the event was pushed back a week as it coincided with a week-long international skateboarding championship in the region.

The Phase 1 ‘proof of concept’ launch aims to demonstrate that the digital technology standard – the second-generation digital video broadcast transmission (DVB-T2) – adopted by South Africa works effectively without interfering with the SKA project’s low-frequency transmissions. It also serves to prove that deep rural regions can at last access television (TV) signals, says DoC technical adviser Roy Kruger.

The second-phase ‘commercial’ nationwide digital switch-on will follow in the last week of November, or the first week of December, says Kruger, who was appointed six months ago by Communication Minister Dina Pule.

South Africa’s plans to roll out its DTT commitments have now gained some visible traction after multiple delays in a process dating back to 2008.

Deadlines and Delays
A 2006 agreement with the International Telecommunications Union, which is spearheading telecommunications technology development in emerging countries, saw the country commit to digital migration along with Europe, the Middle East, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the rest of Africa, by June 17, 2015.

After the 2015 deadline, South Africa’s 11.5-million TV-owning households will require an STB for terrestrial broadcasting transmission signals, as the analogue broadcasting frequencies’ exclusivity, or protection, will be lifted, resulting in signal interruptions.

South Africa’s self-imposed deadline to switch on the digital signal in November 2008, and switch off the analogue signal in November 2011 – allowing for a three-year analogue and digital dual-illumination period – proved unrealistic.

Multiple Ministerial changes, delays in transmission tower upgrades and a 2010 STB technical standard adoption review, as well as amended Broadcasting Digital Migration legislation and DTT regulations requiring public consultation, hampered the digital roll-out, resulting in further delaying the digital switch-on from a new date of April 2012 to September.

The third-phase analogue switch-off is now scheduled for December 2013, in line with the Southern African Development Community roadmap; however, Kruger tells Engineering News that it is not “set in stone” and dual illumination will continue until 2015, if required, to ensure sufficient time for STB distribution.

Standard Review
During the 2010 STB standard review, the DoC, which initially, in 2006, chose the first-generation DVB-T, set aside the option of the Japanese Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting – Terrestrial (ISDB-T) standard in favour of the European DVB-T2 tech- nology, which provides about double the spectrum efficiency of DVB-T.

Kruger comments that, as only five or six other countries operate on the second- generation technology, there is some concern in the industry that DVB-T2 is not the best choice for South Africa.

Brazil, for instance, and a number of other countries have decided on the ISDB-T standard.

However, a 2010 trial, in which 60 DVB-T2 STBs were tested in Soweto by e.tv and M-Net, returned positive results, a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) explained.

Meanwhile, State-owned signal distributor Sentech embarked on an upgrade of its 220 transmission towers to enable the transmitting of the signal for digital broadcasting on the DVB-T2 standard.

Sentech reached about 60% coverage for the DVB-T technology. The switch to DVB-T2 in January 2011 required the signal distributor to upgrade its transmission towers to match the second-generation requirements.

Currently, Sentech DVB-T2 transmitters cover about 60.9% of the population. Gauteng and the North West now have 96% and 92% coverage respectively, while Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape have regional coverage of 33%, 59% and 31% respectively.

The Free State, the Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the Western Cape currently have signals covering 46%, 30%, 45% and 73% of the respective provinces.

Sentech was in the process of installing another 68 transmission stations across South Africa, the company noted in a presentation to Parliament in August.

It aims to ensure that South Africa receives 80% coverage by March 2013 and 88% by December 2013. The remaining 12%, deemed too difficult or uneconomical for terrestrial broadcasting, will receive the digital broadcasting signals through DTH satellite.

Pule, who took up office in October 2011, has established a digital migration project management office to manage and oversee the smooth roll-out of the migration and, in conjunction with the local broadcasting industry, developed a project management plan.

However, despite gaining momentum in progressing the project, a number of challenges remain before South Africa completes its migration to digital broadcasting.

Regulatory Loose Ends
The revised DTT regulations, tabled by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), still need to be finalised after the third and final public consultation, held in August. It is expected to be published by the end of September.

Further, the promulgation of the amended Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy, gazetted in February, and the implement-ation of strategies dealing with STB ownership support and STB manufacturing are still required.

The content-readiness of the DTT broadcasters, such as the State-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), e.tv and M-Net, as well as a number of community broadcasters, would also be a challenge, the DoC said during a Parliamentary session centred on the readiness of the country to migrate.

The DoC also indicated that the project to roll out technology upgrades and host the dual illumination, which would ease the financial burden of the migration on broadcasters, would have a medium-term expenditure budget shortfall of R7-billion.

This year, the DoC allocated R1.8-billion to Sentech for the DTT roll-out and dual illumination. The dual illumination alone was expected to cost Sentech R95-million and R106-million during 2013 and 2014 respectively, and another R107-million in 2015.

The DoC also stated in a Parliamentary presentation that the budget shortfall included R800-million for the DTT Go Digital awareness campaign, which was launched in March. At the end of the 2011/12 financial year, R3.3-million had been used for the campaign, which aimed to educate, inform and raise awareness of the digital migration process.

A publicity campaign for the initial Phase 1 launch was expected to cost about R3.5-million.

Further, Kruger said that there was some concern that subsidised STBs would not be distributed before analogue switch-off.

Five-million of the poorest TV-owning households will qualify for a 70% subsidy for the STBs through the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA). The agency is currently examining the qualification criteria for the subsidy, currently priced at R2.7-billion (excluding distribution). Close to R950-million was allocated to the USAASA this year for the subsidies.

STBs are generally expected to cost between R400 and R700.

The South African Post Office is tasked with distributing the STBs and, according to the readiness report presented to Parliament, has already started designing the software processes required.

A request for proposals (RFP) for the subsidised STB manufacture, replacing an initial request for information (RFI) in April, will be completed, with manufacturers selected, by this month. The RFI attracted 36 potential manufacturers and Kruger expected the RFP, which closed on September 14, to attract even more.

Industrial Spin-Offs
Kruger notes that South Africa-based manufacturers have the capability and knowledge to produce STBs locally, pointing out that STBs have been locally manufactured for the past 20 years. He indicates that only a few minor changes, or tweaks, are required to adapt the decoders to the new digital requirements and the recently adopted standards.

The large manufacturers, Kruger says, are ready to roll out the decoders and would be able to supply STBs about six weeks after the first order.

The DoC’s DTT-readiness presentation also pointed out that the South African Bureau of Standards was currently establishing an STB conformance lab, to be completed in October, based on UK-based DTG and DTVL conformance intellectual property.

“It’s the first time [digital migration] is [being] done in South Africa. Are we going to make mistakes? I am sure we probably will, but let’s focus on the positive – the launch is the beginning of DTT,” he says, adding that the project, which is “locked in”, is supported by a number of “brilliant” engineers at the department.

The DoC estimates that about 23 500 direct and indirect jobs could be created on the back of the migration. However, Kruger suggests that this could be higher.

Call centres are being established by the SABC, e.tv and Sentech, with the DoC-established call centre already operational. Kruger says that, based on a benchmark of an incumbent broadcaster with four-million customers serviced by 1 500 call centre agents, this sector offers the opportunity of creating about 4 500 jobs.

He also points out that, in efforts to ensure sustainable skills, about 20 000 potential STB installers are being trained by the DoC in a number of areas. These skills include – besides STB installation – radio communication and data, such as long-term evolution (LTE), security and alarm, installation, as well as multiple telephone and private automatic branch exchange system installations.

Only 4 000 to 5 000 of the trainees will become DTT installation agents or establish DTT-related businesses, while the remainder will be able to obtain work in other industries.

The manufacturing sector, which will be tasked with producing the millions of STBs, could create between 800 and 1 000 new jobs.

Kruger says that South Africa is the only STB-producing country in Africa and, as every African country, except for Angola, has adopted DVB T2, the manufacturing potential is vast.

Altech CEO Craig Venter previously stated that, over and above South Africa’s demand for 11.5-million STBs, a further 30-million STBs would be required for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

Altech’s KZN-based manufacturing facility, which was launched in August 2011, is able to manufacture about three-million STBs a year.

However, Kruger emphasises that the expanded capacity offered by DTT extends to the local broadcasting content and production sector, which could potentially create between 10 000 and 15 000 jobs.

Content Rich
DTT will provide better-quality TV broadcasts, increased interactivity, Internet access on STBs in some cases, and more channels. It will also release the much-needed bandwidth capacity for the telecommunications industry.

Digital broadcasting could allow the creation of about 16 standard-definition digital channels for each analogue frequency. It will enable broadcasters to launch high- definition channels.

PwC’s ‘South Africa Entertainment and Media 2011 to 2015’ report states that South Africa currently has four free-to-air terrestrial- based broadcasting channels, namely SABC 1, 2 and 3, and e.tv.

The country also hosts two pay TV broadcasters, namely On Digital Media’s TopTv and Multichoice, which broadcast on a digital satellite network. Until the launch of TopTV in 2010, which offers 55 channels, Multichoice was the only pay TV provider in South Africa.

With the increased network capacity of DVB-T2, the SABC and e.tv could, over the next few years, launch over 20 channels between them,

Kruger tells Engineering News that the SABC plans to launch about six new channels as well as a 24-hour news channel over the next few months. The SABC and e.tv are also collaborating on a free-to-air partnership.

Further, PwC’s latest forecast report, which covers the period 2012 to 2015, points out that new avenues of broadcast advertising will open up and boost the market, leading to an increased number of channels.

Broadcast advertising revenue is expected to increase from R10-billion in 2011 to R14.5-billion in 2016.

Kruger comments, however, that more channels will be dependent on whether South Africans embrace local-content production.

Icasa proposes establishing a digital television content advisory group to ensure the development of content that would encourage consumers to buy STBs.

Possible Allocations
A multiplex is a block of transmission capacity holding a range of digital channels. The revised DTT regulations assigned 90% of the capacity on Multiplex 1 to SABC 1, 2 and 3, with the remaining 10% allocated to community TV, which was increasingly attracting interest from viewers and advertisers.

Multiplex 2 would see e.tv holding 50% capacity and M-Net 40% capacity, with 10% set aside for future use, including testing and trials.

The revised DTT regulations propose, during the dual-illumination process, the redesign of a second mobile DTT multiplex into a third multiplex to promote competition, enable a platform for new entrants, stimulate the uptake of DTT services, foster content and enhance consumer choice.

The proposed multiplex 3 will allocate 40% capacity to subscription TV services, 50% to free-to-air commercial TV and 10% to commercial sound broadcasting services.

The Broadcasting Digital Migration policy points out that the migration enables the entrance of new TV service providers in the short term and new free-to-air services in the medium to long term.

However, the SABC and e.tv slammed the proposal, noting that the existing broad- casters are required to carry some of the costs related to the digital migration process, while new entrants would not need to contribute to the migration.

e.tv noted in its submissions to Icasa during the DTT regulations public consultations that new licensees would have an unfair and unreasonable advantage over incumbents, which would be most vulnerable to fragment-ation of audiences during dual illumination, resulting in diluted revenues in the free-to-air broadcasting sector.

However, despite other parties expressing interest in launching subscription and free-to-air services, the barriers to entry are still perceived as significant, PwC comments, adding that new market entrants will take a significant length of time to gain any traction in the sector.

PwC points to the SABC’s current com- petitiveness pressures, which it expects will be exacerbated by the digital migration, as e.tv and M-Net introduce new channels.

The quality of programming and limited choice availability on SABC channels are the main drivers of an increase in pay TV subscription household growth from 1.95-million in 2008 to 3.7-million in 2011. It is expected that this will increase to 5.9- million in 2016.

While Multichoice’s DStv channels would not need to migrate to the terrestrial network, as the channels currently broadcast through satellite technology, the migration could cut into its forecast subscription growth.

Meanwhile, the completion of the digital migration will be a step forward in the DoC’s aim of broadband for all by 2020, with the release of the much-needed spectrum.

The additional spectrum will allow the telecommunications industry to roll out planned next-generation LTE networks, which use considerable bandwidth to reach download speeds of 100 Mb/s, and close the digital divide.

LTE-suitable bandwidth is in high demand and short supply, and many local mobile operators have been laying the groundwork for the LTE networks in preparation for speedy roll-out of the technology.

Edited by: Terence Creamer
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