Dig­i­tal TV – what it means for you T

CityPress - - Voices -

he June 17 dead­line for all African coun­tries to switch their tele­vi­sion broad­casts from ana­logue to dig­i­tal passed this week, and South Africa has still not launched dig­i­tal TV.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not go­ing to hap­pen. The switch from ana­logue – how you re­ceive your TV sig­nal now, us­ing an aerial – to dig­i­tal – where a decoder (and pos­si­bly a new aerial) will be needed – is ex­pected to hap­pen in South Africa in the next two years.

When it fi­nally does hap­pen, dig­i­tal ter­res­trial tele­vi­sion (DTT) means more chan­nels for con­sumers to watch.

They will have bet­ter pic­ture and sound qual­ity, as well as value-added ser­vices such as an elec­tronic TV guide, mul­ti­ple lan­guage tracks and sub­ti­tles.

This can only be good news for our 12.8 mil­lion TV house­holds, es­pe­cially the 62% that rely on freeto-air broad­cast­ers – the SABC’s three chan­nels, e.tv and seven com­mu­nity-TV broad­cast­ers.

It’s the house­holds re­ly­ing on these chan­nels that are most di­rectly af­fected by DTT.

They will need to get a decoder (called a set-top box) and per­haps a new aerial to re­ceive these chan­nels in the fu­ture.

So what is dig­i­tal TV?

In 2006 the In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Union held a con­fer­ence where it was de­cided that all coun­tries in Europe, Africa and the Mid­dle East would mi­grate their TV broad­cast­ing to dig­i­tal by June 17 this year.

The main aim was to re­duce the amount of spec­trum that was be­ing used for broad­cast­ing TV so that it could be freed up for other uses, such as cell­phone and in­ter­net ser­vices.

Spec­trum is the ra­dio fre­quency or “air­waves” used to trans­mit sig­nals. It is a valu­able and fi­nite re­source, so needs to be used ef­fi­ciently.

There are two im­por­tant dates when a coun­try switches from ana­logue to dig­i­tal.

The first is when dig­i­tal TV sig­nals are launched and the sec­ond is when the ana­logue sig­nals are switched off.

Be­tween these stages is a tran­si­tion pe­riod (called dual il­lu­mi­na­tion) dur­ing which dig­i­tal and ana­logue sig­nals run side by side.

This is the win­dow avail­able to switch all ana­logue-TV house­holds into dig­i­tal-TV house­holds.

How do you go dig­i­tal?

To get dig­i­tal TV you’ll have to in­stall a new decoder and, for many, a new kind of aerial.

Some ex­ist­ing aeri­als will work, some won’t – you will have to find out if yours does.

The new decoder al­lows ana­logue TV sets to re­ceive dig­i­tal TV chan­nels.

For early adopters, there is also the op­tion of buy­ing a new in­te­grated dig­i­tal TV with the DTT decoder built in.

Those South Africans who al­ready re­ceive their TV sig­nals via satel­lite ser­vices such as DStv, StarSat and OpenView HD are al­ready dig­i­tal com­pli­ant.

They will not lose their TV ser­vices when the switchover hap­pens, but may not have the full range of new chan­nels on of­fer from other broad­cast­ers.

It’s still not clear what the new decoder will cost – it could be a once-off pay­ment of be­tween R500 and R800.

When a TV chan­nel is broad­cast dig­i­tally, it is al­lo­cated to what it is known as a mul­ti­plex, which is a vast band of spec­trum used to trans­mit var­i­ous sig­nals across it, such as a num­ber of TV chan­nels.

With dig­i­tal TV, these chan­nels can be com­pressed and pack­aged to­gether, so you can broad­cast many chan­nels in the same amount of space that would be taken by just one ana­logue chan­nel.

South Africa has three mul­ti­plexes avail­able for dig­i­tal TV.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions reg­u­la­tor Icasa ex­pects each of these mul­ti­plexes to have a max­i­mum ca­pac­ity of 20 stan­dard­def­i­ni­tion TV chan­nels or eight high-def­i­ni­tion chan­nels.

This means DTT will bring us the po­ten­tial for 60 new reg­u­lar free-to-air TV chan­nels or 24 high-def­i­ni­tion ones – com­pared with the four we have now.

With dig­i­tal TV, the SABC’s mul­ti­plex can of­fer up to 17 stan­dard-def­i­ni­tion chan­nels or six high-def­i­ni­tion ones – plus three com­mu­nity TV chan­nels in stan­dard def­i­ni­tion. On its mul­ti­plex, e.tv has the ca­pac­ity for 11 stan­dard­def­i­ni­tion chan­nels or four high-def­i­ni­tion ones. M-Net has the ca­pac­ity for nine stan­dard-def­i­ni­tion chan­nels and three high-def­i­ni­tion ones. But that’s just what’s avail­able, it doesn’t mean all those chan­nels will be used.

If broad­cast­ers don’t use the ex­tra ca­pac­ity on their mul­ti­plexes, they will lose it af­ter three years and other broad­cast­ers will be of­fered the space for their con­tent.

In Au­gust last year, Icasa re­leased the pro­mo­tion of di­ver­sity and com­pe­ti­tion on dig­i­tal ter­res­trial tele­vi­sion reg­u­la­tions – rules that will al­low the reg­u­la­tor to li­cense new play­ers in the free-to-air and paid-for TV ser­vices on the DTT plat­form.

What does miss­ing this week’s dead­line mean?

By the coun­try not mi­grat­ing to dig­i­tal by June 17, South African tele­vi­sion view­ers – es­pe­cially those who live near our borders – will not be pro­tected from in­ter­fer­ence from TV sig­nals broad­cast by neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. This might dis­rupt their abil­ity to watch TV. It also means view­ers in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries can easily pi­rate our TV sig­nals.

Icasa and the depart­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, with Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Faith Muthambi, have been vis­it­ing neigh­bour­ing coun­tries Botswana, Zim­babwe, Namibia, Mozam­bique, Le­sotho and Swaziland to speak to reg­u­la­tors to lessen the risk of any sig­nal in­ter­fer­ence that may oc­cur.

In her re­cent bud­get vote speech in Par­lia­ment, Muthambi said: “We have pri­ori­tised South African com­mu­ni­ties along­side the bor­der­line ar­eas for the dis­tri­bu­tion of set-top boxes to mit­i­gate any po­ten­tial fre­quency-spec­trum in­ter­fer­ences.”

Mau­ri­tius, Malawi, Rwanda, Namibia and Tan­za­nia have al­ready com­pleted their dig­i­tal-mi­gra­tion process.

DTT might be de­layed here at home – but it is com­ing, that’s for sure.

When it does, you need to fig­ure out if you qual­ify for a free decoder, or start in­ves­ti­gat­ing what op­tions you have in terms of buy­ing one.

Be­cause, in a few years, the ana­logue TV sig­nal will be turned off for good and we will be liv­ing in a dig­i­tal TV world. This means more chan­nels and bet­ter sound and pic­ture qual­ity than ever be­fore. This se­ries on dig­i­tal ter­res­trial tele­vi­sion is pro­duced in

part­ner­ship with the SOS Coali­tion

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