Nº 2 2012 > Features
Switching from analogue to digital television
The big picture in the Arab region
The transition from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasting presents governments, broadcasters, regulators and the general public with immense opportunities and challenges. Digital terrestrial broadcasting provides possibilities for adding new programmes and interactive multimedia services. This article describes factors that need to be considered in preparing a road map for a smooth transition in the Arab region.
The GE06 plan
A digital broadcasting plan, covering 116 countries (mainly in Africa and Europe), was agreed for the frequency bands 174–230 MHz and 470–862 MHz at the ITU Regional Radiocommunication Conference (RRC‑06) in Geneva in June 2006. According to this plan (known as the GE06), the latest analogue switch-off date is 17 June 2015 (except for some countries in some frequency bands where the deadline is 17 June 2020).
The Arab countries are part of the GE06 plan, and are therefore heading towards the transition from analogue to digital terrestrial broadcasting. The plan for the digital broadcasting transition in the region is shown in the table below. Some countries are well advanced in the process, while others are still at the beginning or have not yet started. For example, Jordan has arranged for the digital transition in two stages. The first stage, covering the main television broadcasting stations (11 cities), started at the beginning of 2012 and is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The second stage, covering rural and remote areas, will be implemented in 2013–2015. After the first stage, there will be a one-year overlap between digital and analogue broadcasting to allow end users to upgrade their receivers. Jordan Radio and Television is responsible for the transition, and a budget has been allocated for 2012 and 2013.
Digital broadcasting transition plan
Twelve countries in the Arab region have deployed, or have transition plans for deploying digital terrestrial television broadcasting. Most of these countries have frequency plans, and have chosen to deploy the digital video broadcasting — terrestrial (DVB‑T) standard. However, only a few indicated that a legal and regulatory framework is in place. The duration of the transition ranges from 18 to 91 months. With the exception of Morocco and Saudi Arabia, most of these countries have a limited number of DVB‑T transmitters on air. In contrast, direct-to-home (DTH) satellite broadcasting is available in all countries in the Arab region.
Country status in the transition
In Algeria, the end of analogue television and full transition to digital transmission is scheduled to take place in 2014. Télédiffusion d’Algérie (TDA) announced that it has begun implementing the first phase of its three-phase action plan. Digital terrestrial television broadcasting is expected to be operational by the end of the first quarter of 2012. Internet protocol television (IPTV) has been operational in the Algerian market since February 2010, the service being provided by the Algérie Télécom Group.
Digital terrestrial television is not operational in Bahrain but Nuetel launched IPTV services in February 2007, and by September 2011 these services were being provided to Reef Island and Amwaj Island. At around the same time in September 2011 Batelco, the incumbent operator, launched its IPTV services to two newly developed areas of Reed Island. Mobile television services in Bahrain are provided by Viva.
Egypt has the largest number of direct-to-home (DTH) satellite channels in the Arab region. With regard to digital television, the National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA) is now considering the spectrum band 790–862 MHz as part of the digital dividend and will also consider the band 698–790 MHz as a future extension. Mobile operators are offering mobile television. The Egyptian Advanced Multimedia Systems (EAMS) will be the provider of satellite-based IPTV services, when they become commercially available. Mobile television services are provided by Mobinil and Etisalat Misr.
Alsumaria television is the only channel that has digital terrestrial television in Iraq. Using the digital video broadcasting — handheld (DVB‑H) technology, Mobision, part of the Alsumaria Broadcasting Service Company, is the single mobile television (DVB) service provider in Iraq.
IPTV is operational in the Jordanian market, with Orange Jordan as the sole provider. Orange Jordan commercially launched IPTV and video-on-demand services in the last quarter of 2008, and is the only mobile television service provider through 3G in Jordan.
Digital terrestrial television broadcasting is not yet operational in Kuwait but an agreement signed in 2006 says that DVB‑T will be implemented by 2015. Mobile television is provided by two cellular operators: Zain Kuwait and Viva.
Television services in Lebanon are delivered via ultra-high frequency (UHF) free-to-air analogue television, unlicensed cable television and wireless distribution, multipoint video distribution system (MVDS) and DTH satellite television. All the UHF terrestrial television broadcasters in Lebanon are employing analogue transmission networks with multiple transmitter locations. The main digital television services are delivered via satellite and digital video broadcasting multipoint distribution satellite (DVB‑MS) operators. Mobile television is not operational in the Lebanese market.
In Libya, Libyana provides mobile television services, and in cooperation with Enensys (a French company), began a trial of DVB‑H mobile television technology in Tripoli in 2007. IPTV is currently not operational in the country.
Mauritania is still behind when it comes to digital broadcasting. Neither IPTV nor mobile television is operational in the country. By December 2011, Mauritania had one State-owned digital terrestrial channel and one State-owned DTH satellite channel.
In Morocco, the Société Nationale de Radiodiffusion et de Télévision provides both digital terrestrial and mobile television (DVB) broadcasting. Maroc Telecom provides 3G mobile television, while Meditel and Maroc Telecom provide IPTV services.
Oman is the only country in the region that does not have terrestrial television; all local channels are broadcast via satellite DTH. However, in accordance with the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Act, issued by Royal Decree No. 30/2002, and its Executive Regulations and the Telecom Sector Policy, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority is in the process of developing regulation for the introduction of DVB‑H technology in the country. IPTV is not operational in the Omani market, although there are no regulatory hurdles to prevent national fixed and mobile licensees offering the service. Mobile operators Nawras and Oman have been providing 3G mobile television since 2009.
In Qatar, digital terrestrial broadcast transmission is not operational. The incumbent operator, Qtel, provides IPTV and mobile television (IP‑based) services. Digital terrestrial broadcast transmissions began in Saudi Arabia in June 2006. The first phase of digital terrestrial television transmission included 40 cities. Saudi Telecom Company (STC) deployed IPTV and triple-play services through its fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network. In August 2010, STC announced the launch of “Invision”, a service that bundles IPTV, broadband Internet and fixed telephony. Mobile television services are provided by three cellular operators.
In Sudan, digital terrestrial broadcast transmission is reportedly operational, but neither IPTV nor mobile television is operational. Neither IPTV nor mobile television services are operational in the Syrian Arab Republic. The Ministry of Information planned to start the switch-over of terrestrial channels from analogue to digital by mid-2011 but there was a delay in starting.
Digital terrestrial television in Tunisia is regulated through the National Broadcasting Corporation. Tunisia’s digital terrestrial television project consists of two phases. The first phase, which started in 2001, included the experimental implementation in Boukornine of a digital television broadcasting unit using DVB‑T system and MPEG‑2 compression. Part of the second phase was completed in 2009, and covered the digitization of the transmission network between production studios and the different broadcasting stations. Tunisie Telecom announced that it is in the process of upgrading its network in order to start providing services that include IPTV, but that service is not yet operational. In December 2011, Orange Tunisie was the sole provider of mobile television services in the country.
The United Arab Emirates’s Telecommunication Regulatory Authority published a terrestrial digital switchover plan in December 2009. According to the four-phase plan, the existing analogue television broadcasting operators must switch off their analogue television transmitters by December 2013 at the latest. IPTV is offered through Etisalat’s subsidiary E‑Vision and du. As for DVB‑H mobile television, the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority granted a licence to the Emirates Mobile Television Corporation consortium in November 2009, making the United Arab Emirates the first country in the region to issue such a licence.
The Palestinian Authority and Yemen are still behind when it comes to digital broadcasting. Mobile television, IPTV and digital terrestrial broadcast transmission services are not operational in these economies.
User and operator responses to the transition
Digital satellite television broadcasting is widely used in the Arab region, despite there being several providers of DTH satellite platforms. The number of terrestrial television viewers in the Arab region has fallen drastically as households switch to the wider choices and richer content of satellite television. Satellite payTV is popular in the region, but is widely pirated. Because of the plethora of free content, end users in the region are generally not used to paying for content.
Waiting until the technology is mature, and the lack of demand from end users, are among the main reasons for not deploying IPTV and mobile television in several countries in the Arab region. Other reasons include insufficient financial resources, unprofitable business models, lack of content and the lack of clear regulatory frameworks.
Top drivers of IPTV and mobile television include: an adequate and reliable infrastructure, attractive content, good business models, an adequate regulatory framework, good marketing and promotion, a reduced broadband subscription fee and cooperation between actors in the value chain.
Challenges of transition
The transition process is not a simple matter of technology. There are regulatory and administrative challenges to overcome in order for a smooth transition to take place. One is the need for regulators to review licence conditions, including spectrum and broadcasting rights, and decide on various technological options such as transmission technology, television presentation format, compression technology and simulcast policies. Operators also need to decide on network planning options, such as multi-frequency network (MFN) and single-frequency network (SFN), and identify key applications. Consumers need to use set-top boxes or replace their current analogue equipment (televisions and video recorders) with digital receivers.
Regulators can balance the importance of these rights in different ways, so the applied licensing framework for digital terrestrial television has tended to vary from country to country and comes in many different forms and definitions. In elaborating a licensing framework, attention needs to be paid to spectrum management objectives, competition rules and objectives, market structure and environmental objectives, media rules and objectives, and convergence trends.
A number of countries in the Arab region lack effective spectrum management plans, so it is important for the region to address the policy, regulatory and technical challenges it faces in this field. One way is by promoting harmonized policies and practices in spectrum management and building human and institutional capacity in this field.
The transition to digital terrestrial television broadcasting is a complex process, requiring the involvement of legislators, regulators, broadcasting companies (content producers, broadcasters and network operators), manufacturers and viewers. Countries need to take decisions on the key political and technological issues, based on technical and economic analysis, the availability of relevant devices and equipment and the readiness of viewers, while taking into account the relevant international regulations such as the ITU Radio Regulations and regional and bilateral commitments.
In order to harmonize spectrum use in the Arab region, it is recommended to develop harmonized national and regional frequency allocation tables. Countries that do not have a national spectrum management system can use ITU’s spectrum management system, the SMS4DC, as a model. For efficient spectrum use, countries should set up a harmonized borderline frequency coordination mechanism based, for example, on the harmonized calculation method used in Europe. Regional expertise should be enhanced through capacity building.
There is a need to ensure a well-coordinated approach for the transition from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasting among countries. This will necessarily involve the participation of governments, industry, financial institutions and other stakeholders as part of a shared effort to connect the Arab region.