The digitization that nobody is pushing

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 30/05/2013
The most powerful broadcasting system available today is digital terrestrial.
But in India terrestrial audiences have migrated even as the government dithers over its implementation, says SEVANTI NINAN
Sevanti Ninan
A half-hearted technology transfer does a country no good. In sharp contrast to the missionary zeal displayed in pushing through cable digitisation, is the situation regarding the digital switchover for terrestrial TV. One was pushed through by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) to help private sector broadcasters get better declaration of subscriptions, and therefore increase their viability. No quarrel will that.
But the other, the conversion of Prasar Bharati’s analog transmission towers to digital which will enable clarity and compression, has no godfathers—not the Planning Commission which needs to sanction the funds, nor MIB  which does not show any signs of putting its weight behind this switchover and has kept the analog switch-off date at a distant 2017.
Nor can you blame them entirely: a more problematic confrontation between practical realities and technologically desirable objectives is hard to find in the current media scenario.
In their TV transmission evolution countries develop multiple platforms, favour one heavily over the other for a while, but then shift in favour of something else. So that UK, for instance, having favoured cable and satellite at one stage in its digital evolution, has now settled into a scenario where digital terrestrial transmission (DTT) has the most number of consumers on it.
Both in the US and in several European countries digital terrestrial now has the majority subscriber base. One set of countries in Europe, small in number, have less than ten percent of their TV consumers on DTT. Germany and Netherlands, for example. Others like Italy Spain Greece Portugal and France have large numbers using it. Two strong reasons for that: The most powerful broadcasting system today available is digital terrestrial. It has a single point of failure, not multiple, as in the case of cable and satellite. And it frees up spectrum for telephony.
The conversion obviously costs money, you have to replace a network of analog transmitters (1450 in India) with digital ones (630 needed). But it doesn’t get cheaper if you dither or decide to convert over 15 years! And all that happens in the meanwhile is that the terrestrial audience goes away to another platform.
So here is how India made a mess of the transition. First it took a policy decision to retain terrestrial as a monopoly for DD and AIR. Then it took the decision to convert but not to provide the money for the conversion. So that in a situation where a total of 630 transmitters is needed it sanctioned the money for 60 in the 11th plan, and another 60 in the 12th plan. At that rate we’ll be in another technological era by the time those 630 ever get going.
So those who want it now, principally the engineers of Doordarshan and All India Radio, are reduced to searching for business plans to finance it. They talk eagerly of how digital terrestrial TV signals can be captured on android smart phones, dongles, tablets and laptops. In moving vehicles. And then add hastily, before someone else can point out the obvious, “of course you require good content.”
How many of the countries which have as strong digital terrestrial networks today have kept commercial broadcasters out? None. Nor is their public service content as uncompetitive as Doordarshan’s. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s channels for children from the ages of 0-15 are more popular than commercial kids’ channels, and Italy’s RAI is pretty strong in that department too.
During a seminar held here earlier this week on DVB-T2, the technological standard for DTT, a DD engineer asked plaintively of a man from RAI doing a presentation over satellite, “Sir, what is your business model for DTT?” To which the puzzled Italian replied, “RAI is a public service broadcaster. So the government gives us the money to implement the network.” There was sheepish laughter at this end.
Doordarshan goes through the motions of implementing the switchover even as the audience has gone away and the money is not there. And why blame the Ministry and the Planning Commission, Prasar Bharati itself is sharply divided on whether this Rs 3000 crore switchover is really needed.
Those in charge of DD’s free DTH service DD Direct, and the broadcaster’s programming staff in general, can see no logic in beefing up a terrestrial transmission which has lost its viewers. They argue that the money is needed to beef up programming so that DD can retain audiences on its other platforms.
What is not mentioned much in the arguments is the local farm broadcasts of Doordarshan, available in a 100 km radius  from the local narrowcasting Kendra only on its terrestrial network.  (Narrowcasting is the broadcaster’s term for targeted local telecasts.)   In at least two states, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, when rural terrestrial audiences migrated to DTH, the state kendras mounted the local programmes on their satellite service, at specific hours on specific days for farmers in those regions to catch them. And in a third state, Chhattisgarh, it is the farmers who make the effort. Better-off farmers in the vicinity of Raipur maintain two TV sets, one for their DTH connection, another to catch the regional farm transmission not available on satellite. And in Bastar district I found a farmer who said that when DD’s farm transmission in Halbi, a local dialect, came on, he pulled out the connection to the DTH set top box and plugged in the connection to the DD antenna. He did this for every Halbi telecast.
Terrestrial’s strength is localisation, but its millions of potential beneficiaries in India have no clout with the powers that be.

(This is an expanded version of a column carried in Mint on May 30, 2013.)

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