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Digital Switchover Creates New Opportunities

By | December 1, 2008

      Broadcasters in the United States will end analog transmissions Feb. 17 and move entirely to digital. Every facet of broadcasting will be affected, and while the industry has been preparing for this switch for several years, some broadcasters are scrambling to ensure their new digital networks will be ready in time.

      Is the United States ready for this move? Are there lessons to be learned from other countries which already have made the transition? How will satellite service providers, satellite operators and hardware manufacturers be affected by this government-mandated move? As a nation, are we ready?

      The Switch to Digital

      The result of turning off analog transmissions is digital over-the-air programming known as digital terrestrial television (DTT). The switch to digital enables the most efficient use of the RF spectrum, delivery of more channels to consumers and the potential for creative new services. The ability to raise billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury from auctions of the vacated 700 megahertz band also helped nudge the transition along.

      In general, U.S. television stations are preparing for the transition in an orderly fashion. Their first priority was to secure new digital licenses. Once the legal work was complete, stations turned their attention to RF studies. Analog and digital television signals behave differently and path studies were needed to ensure proper coverage and signal strength in an all-digital world. Analog signals tend to bounce off buildings and clever RF engineers had used skyscrapers for decades to maximize a station’s terrestrial footprint. In many locations it was determined that multiple shorter towers would provide better digital coverage than a single tall tower. The new towers for the digital transmitters were then engineered and constructed. Once the towers were completed, the television stations turned their attention to their transmitters and, finally, to their production equipment.

      The transition will directly affect the roughly 1,500 local television stations and an estimated 11,000 cable headends across the United States. "When you combine DBS and cable subscribers in the United States, market penetration is close to 80 percent," says Jayant Dasari of Parks Associates, a Dallas-based consultancy which does research on digital and home networking markets. "Over 12 percent of American households rely on over-the-air programming, which translates to roughly 13 million homes. Each of these homes will need to do something before the February deadline."

      The mandate from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) only requires stations to upgrade to digital transmission, and there is quite a bit of confusion in the consumer market about the differences between standard-definition (SD) and high-definition (HD) formats. Consequently, many consumers mistakenly think they must buy a high-definition TV to prepare for the transition. "You need to realize that you don’t make the switch from 100 percent analog to 100 percent digital overnight," says Joe Zaller, vice president of corporate development for Snell & Wilcox, which manufactures products which are used in broadcast, post production, satellite, and IPTV markets. "You typically introduce a new piece of digital equipment, like a digital tape machine. When you do, it becomes a digital island. Then you need an interface to get in and out of the island. Just because someone comes up with new digital equipment doesn’t mean it is a good reason to throw away perfectly good analog equipment. Sometimes big events, such as the Olympic Games trigger large scale transitions but generally they occur over time. Going digital is just one step. Going HD is just one step. Broadcasters are always on a transition continuum and every company is at a different point," he says.

      The popularity of large screen, high-resolution televisions has been staggering, with global sales of digital televisions expected to grow from 65 million units in 2007 to 250 million units in 2013, according to TelAstra. At the end of 2007, TelAstra’s survey found there were about 40 million digital televisions in the United States.

      The exceptionally crisp and clear displays provide a quandary for transmission engineers. "What you have is essentially a big magnifying glass in your living room," says Zaller. "When you daisy chain equipment, you will get artifacts in the transmission. Set top boxes introduce even more artifacts. The eye is easily fooled but once your eyes get accustomed to artifacts they are very objectionable. The broadcasting industry has moved from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 in order to achieve higher efficiencies, but there are many image processing devices in the transmission chain, including upconverters and encoders, each of which can introduce some type of image artifact, so you have to be very careful. After all, HD viewers have voted with their wallets for quality, so it’s important to deliver what they want." Zaller and other industry experts note that transmission engineers are very sensitive to complaints from viewers and might back off on the amount of compression to ensure the best picture quality.

      Lessons from Around the Globe

      The United States is not the first country to transition over-the-air broadcasts to digital. To date, television stations in parts of the United Kingdom and Germany as well as all of Sweden have cut off their analog transmitters. The Swedish government launched a Digital TV Commission in 2004 to transition the country’s over-the-air stations to digital. The transition started in fall 2005 and was broken into five phases. Anders Bjers, a DTV expert, served on the Swedish Digital TV Commission and was consulted by the FCC and U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding his country’s digital transition. "Instead of transitioning the whole country in one day, we split it up into five geographic areas," he says. "Zone/Phase 1 covered Gotland Island. People didn’t believe that the analog television that they enjoyed for 50 years was actually going away. Fifteen to 20 percent of the households didn’t have any plans until the day the analog transmitters were turned off. This sent a signal to the rest of Sweden that we were serious about the transition and they needed to make preparations.

      "The transition lasted one-and-a-half years, and when we began there were only 15 to 20 different types of converter boxes available," says Bjers. "The market woke up, and a year later there were roughly 100 different choices, which was good for the consumer. You must realize that the converter boxes aren’t one size fits all. There is one box for a simple analog television, and another if your want cable and yet a different type if you want a DVD. I don’t see that in the United States, and I am wondering why. There seems like there should be many more choices than the handful of selections which are available today. That would help consumers to find the proper box for their needs."

      Bjers stressed the importance of the local media to educate consumers of the upcoming switch, especially low income viewer and the elderly. "We found in Sweden that quite many older people, who have lived in their homes for many years, needed new antennas and cabling. All of the contractors were booked up for a month before the switch was made. In addition, these same people needed the most help installing and programming their converter boxes," he says.

      Natalie Mouyal of DigiTag, an organization, which aims to encourage and facilitate the introduction and implementation of DTT services using the standards developed by digital video broadcasting, says Sweden is a model for others countries to follow. "Sweden proved that a phased approach, where analog services are switched off region by region based on an agreed timeline, works well. Planners in Sweden were particularly successful in providing the flexibility to meet the different needs of each region and ensuring that viewers were aware of the switch and prepared. It has also enabled planners to spread the cost and energy of switchover across several years," she says.

      The move to digital in Europe actually started more than five years ago when Berlin became the first major city in the world to complete the analog to digital transition process, in 2003. "Berlin proved that with an effective communication strategy and help for low-income households, the process can be completed within a defined region or island. This region-by-region approach to analog switchoff has been adopted in almost all countries in Europe," says Mouyal.

      "This transition is a wonderful market opportunity for everyone. People are forced to make a decision. It is rare when this happens to an entire market and this is a golden opportunity for everyone in the broadcast market."

      — Bjers

      In the United Kingdom, where the analog signal is yet to fully switch off, DTT service Freeview has performed well since its launch in 2002. According to statistics from the U.K. Office of Communications (Ofcom), Freeview is now the main service in the country with nearly 10 million households. A satellite story also has emerged in 2008 with the launch of Freesat, a free digital satellite TV alternative to Freeview backed by the BBC and ITV and targeted to households who cannot gain access to Freeview. The service, launched in May, has made an encouraging start and by September, 100,000 households were taking the Freesat service.

      "At the end of 2008, analog switchover will have been completed in Germany, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Andorra, Switzerland and Luxembourg. Countries that are expected to complete the process by the end of 2009 include Denmark and Norway, while Spain and Austria plan to do so by the end of 2010," says Mouyal. "The year 2012 is important since it is date that the European Commission has recommended for the completion of digital switchover by its member states. Most countries have targeted 2012 for the completion of analog switchoff, and it will be interesting to see which ones manage to do so, especially in countries where a significant number of households rely on the terrestrial television platform."

      Satellite leads the way

      Fixed satellite service (FSS) operators have broadcast digital content for many years and already have upgraded facilities based on market demand. "Broadcasters can transmit up to 15 SD signals or three to five HD signals through a 36-megahertz transponder versus one or two analog transmissions," says Roger Rusch, owner of TelAstra, a Palos Verde, California-based consultancy. "HD programming contains six times as much information content. The SD picture has about 300,000 pixels while an HD picture has as many as 2 million pixels. The values are slightly less due to frame overhead."

      According to the Satellite Industry Association, FSS operators carried 1,353 HD channels for distribution, up 150 percent from 2006. Satellite-delivered HDTV channels are forecast to grow 350 percent by 2013, underpinning steady growth in the FSS industry’s revenues. Ron Rosenthal, regional vice president of broadcast solutions for Intelsat, works with customers to ensure there is adequate capacity in the future to meet their needs. Intelsat already has worked with its broadcasting customers to ensure the proper transmissions will be in place prior to the switch, he says. In addition, its occasional use customers, such as satellite newsgathering operations, are well equipped from a technological point so broadcasting is seamless during the transition. "We are concerned with making sure Intelsat has dedicated enough occasional use space segment, as well as space segment for our full-time broadcasters, to meet demand during this transition. We work with our clients and try to balance everyone’s needs. It isn’t only about short-term needs; we also factor in medium-term and long-term needs." Intelsat also is providing encoders on a lease or rental basis should customers require additional equipment, he says.

      DirectTV and Dish also have employed digital transmissions since their inception and their combined 31 million subscribers will not be affected by the transition, however, their backhaul facilities, which receive programming from local broadcasters, are being upgraded to ensure a smooth transition.

      The Next Steps

      Digital television will have far reaching consequences beyond the obvious benefits of increased picture quality. The blending of DTT with the IPTV and cable services is one possibility proving popular in Europe. Enterprising Internet providers, such as Orange, BT, and Neuf offer hybrid set-top boxes which allow free DTT and on-demand IPTV programming. The goal of the Internet providers is to capture market share and then upsell at a later date.

      As the old saying goes: Always follow the money. Now that consumers have voted with their wallets, buying large numbers of high-resolution television, it remains to be seen how large advertisers will respond. Will they start producing content in high definition or will they take the chance and stick with SD?

      Digital television will allow all sorts of new opportunities. There could be such a proliferation of new channels that a video search engine could emerge to help viewers find channels. "Digital advertising is another possibility. This allows advertisers to target specific age or demographic groups based on what they are viewing. We are entering a whole new world," he says.

      "This transition is a wonderful market opportunity for everyone," says Bjers. "People are forced to make a decision. It is rare when this happens to an entire market and this is a golden opportunity for everyone in the broadcast market."

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