Nº 6 2013 > Interviews
Poland goes fully digital with television broadcasting
Interview with Magdalena Gaj
President of Poland's National Regulatory Authority Office of Electronic Communications
Poland completed its analogue switch-off on 23 July 2013. ITU News caught up with Magdalena Gaj, President of Poland’s National Regulatory Authority Office of Electronic Communications to gain insight into the country’s successful transition to digital television broadcasting.
ITU News caught up with Magdalena Gaj, President of Poland’s National Regulatory Authority Office of Electronic Communications to gain insight into the country’s successful transition to digital television broadcasting.
Ms Gaj, in 2009, as Deputy Minister of Infrastructure you were appointed to head the "Interministerial Group for Transition from Analogue to Digital Television and Digital Radio" and entrusted with digitizing Poland. Tell us more about this group and the implementation plan you launched to set the country on the path from analogue to digital television.
Magdalena Gaj: The transition from analogue to digital television presents a complex problem. As specialists, we tend in the first place to think about the technical aspects. But we also have to deal with the programming aspects (the content that will be available for viewers) and the social aspects (how to reach citizens with information and help them cope with this complicated process).
This is the reason why in Poland the Prime Minister decided to create an interministerial group, composed of representatives of different ministries — ranging from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, to the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Ministry of Finance. In this multi-sectoral group, we were able to quickly and deftly handle problems that arose in the drawing up of the implementation plan for digital television, and to allay doubts and uncertainties.
The plan, eventually adopted by the Council of Ministers as a government document, defined the purpose of multiplexes (all-Poland coverage), set the switch-off date, selected the technology (DVB‑T) and standard (MPG‑4) to be used, and indicated the steps to be taken and the need for legislation.
You then drafted the digitization act. What did this act cover in terms of regulation, and why was it so important?
MG: In Poland, we decided to draft an act primarily because of the huge resistance from broadcasters, who still had valid analogue concessions. Without the act, which imposed certain responsibilities and set a date for analogue television switch-off, I believe that the transition process would still be going on.
The act provided that the existing commercial broadcasters (there were four) would get one multiplex for their joint use, while the public broadcaster would get one separate multiplex exclusively for its own use.
The act also made it obligatory to carry out an information campaign. The minister tasked with communications was ultimately responsible for the campaign, but broadcasters were also legally bound to broadcast a certain number of information messages at fixed time slots throughout the day, during the period from the coming into force of the act until the switch-off date.
What did the analogue terrestrial television platform offer in terms of services, and who were the public and commercial broadcasters?
MG: The analogue terrestrial television platform offered only television channels. Public service broadcaster TVP offered two nationwide programmes (TVP1 and TVP2 — covering 97.6 per cent of the population) and one regional programme (TVP Info — covering 72.1 per cent of the population). We also had four commercial broadcasters, namely TVN (covering 43.1 per cent of the population), POLSAT (covering 81.1 per cent of the population), PULS (covering 24.8 per cent of the population) and TV4 (covering 25.1 per cent of the population).
How did broadcasters react to switching from analogue to digital television?
MG: Initially, broadcasters did everything they could to obstruct or slow down the process. Two of the broadcasters already had — and still have — their own satellite platforms. At the outset (in 2008), market regulators held talks with Polish broadcasters to try to persuade them to voluntarily engage in the transition process. But broadcasters resorted to different stratagems to avoid the regulators.
I took part in those talks, and that is why, when I became the minister responsible for conducting the transition process in Poland, I was convinced that only a legal act and regulatory obligations would offer a chance to efficiently and effectively manage this process. Once broadcasters saw the determination of the regulator and recognized the inevitability of the process, they began to cooperate.
Why was DVB-T selected as the standard and how was this choice received by broadcasters, especially those who had their own channels via satellite?
MG: Broadcasters, especially those with their own digital satellite platforms, were — to put it mildly — not overjoyed with the situation, because they saw the potential implementation of terrestrial digital television as a threat. Before the implementation of DVB‑T these broadcasters had a monopoly on good quality, high-definition television capable of providing additional services (for example, more soundtracks, services for the hearing-impaired, as well as hybrid broadcast broadband television services).
Those added services and, of course, the possibility of providing reception, were reasons for the migration from analogue to digital. We are already providing more than 98 per cent of Poland's population with access to 22 digital channels and, what is more important, these channels are free of charge. In comparison, before the transition, between three and seven analogue channels were available and were of a lower quality. The important measures taken previously within ITU and the European Union were surely instrumental in improving the service offer.
One-third of Polish citizens used to receive television only through a terrestrial analogue signal. As a minimum, digital television had to guarantee these viewers the possibility of watching the same programmes.
The choice of DVB‑T and MPEG‑4 as the obligatory standard for terrestrial digital television in Poland was made in 2009, when the implementation of the DVB‑T2 standard started. At that time, we had planned to use MPEG‑2 as the image compression standard, but in order to get the greatest possible capacity from terrestrial multiplexes, for example by enabling the broadcasting of HD channels, MPEG‑4 was finally selected. The main argument for choosing this standard was the wide range of devices available and the relatively accessible purchase price. Another reason was not to burden viewers with high costs connected to the replacement of receivers.
How did you win the support of private sector entities, and what did they contribute to the transition, especially in the awareness campaign that you ran?
MG: Frankly speaking, I guess I persuaded them through my determination and stubbornness. They saw that I would carry out this process with or without them, so they made the right choice, realizing that it was better to cooperate and exert influence in some matters, rather than stand by inactively knowing that the transition would happen anyway.
How did they engage? I signed a public-private partnership agreement with them through which they co-financed the production of several news flashes and infomercials that were broadcast regularly for almost two years. The private sector was legally obliged to allocate air time for broadcasting the awareness campaign. In addition, one Chamber of Commerce helped us a lot in preparing content for leaflets and flyers to inform users how to connect a decoder. This Chamber of Commerce also drafted a lesson on digitization, which was sent to all schools to help teachers in giving compulsory lessons on this topic to every class.
In 2012 you were appointed President of the Office of Electronic Communications (UKE) and were made responsible for implementing the switch-off process. How was this carried out?
MG: The act on digitization was adopted in 2011, and the process of switching off analogue television was carried out in seven stages, from 7 November 2012 to 23 July 2013. In the first two stages, switch-off took place in sparsely inhabited areas. The experience that we gained from this exercise was of benefit in the subsequent stages, and successive switch-off and transition to digital broadcasting were managed smoothly.
Before each stage, in the areas that were to be included in analogue television switch-off, the availability of digital television signals was measured and DVB-T signal intensity was analysed simultaneously. On that basis, we were able to identify towns where problems with reception of digital television were likely to occur, and we used the mass media to inform people what actions they should take.
How did UKE prepare viewers throughout the country for the analogue switch-off and transition to digital television?
MG: Apart from the nationwide media campaign, which I launched while in government and which is still being managed and developed by the government, we prepared thousands of information leaflets. These leaflets explained the process and included simple images with instructions on how to plug in a decoder to an old type of television set or what to do with an aerial.
My office has 16 branches — one in each of the 16 regions of Poland. Thanks to this decentralized presence, we were able to directly reach a large number of citizens and, what is more, citizens could easily reach us. We also took an active part in the Digital Towns initiative organized by the public broadcaster. This involved outdoor parties in the different cities, towns and villages included in the particular switch-off stage concerned. We were present with our mobile measuring stations and cars, and were always ready to visit sites to check the signal quality.
We created Digital Brigades and invited high-school students specializing in communications to lend us a hand. The task of the Digital Brigades was to help elderly people who had technical problems connecting devices. The young technicians engaged enthusiastically in this work and exhibited an impressive level of commitment. It was very pleasing to see the switch-off and transition process being used to inculcate worthy social behaviour in young people and give them an opportunity to help those in need. The Digital Brigades solved a lot of the difficulties faced by people aged over 50 years. The country’s 25 technical schools also engaged in activities initiated by UKE to help people for whom the transition process might cause problems.
Polish Post offered the possibility of buying DVB-T decoders from its offices throughout the country. This was particularly important in small towns and villages. It was estimated that 3 million people were likely to buy this type of device.
Terrestrial digital television signals reach places where television was previously unavailable, and overall coverage has increased from 98.7 per cent to 99.5 per cent of the population.
What did viewers themselves need to do in order to receive digital television, and how did you avoid digital exclusion?
MG: Viewers needed either a new television set complying with the MPEG-4 standard or an old set for which it was possible to buy a decoder. There was no financial support programme to help citizens buy decoders. Obviously, we monitored the situation in order to make sure that nobody was deprived of television. If that problem had arisen we would have launched an appropriate programme.
Our approach was to let the market forces act, with the proviso that if the market did not achieve the desired result, then we would react.
With hindsight, we conclude that our approach has been better for society than subsidizing the purchase of DVB-T sets. If the government had announced subsidies for the purchase of devices, prices would have risen or at best remained stable. In fact, when digitization started in Poland, free market competition caused a decline in prices and thereby increased accessibility for all.
In Poland, we focused on guaranteeing the technical availability of the signal. State funding enabled the public television broadcaster to construct 127 subsidiary stations (gap-filler stations), thanks to which the terrestrial digital television signal now reaches more than 99 per cent of Poland's population. To check the reach of the digital signal, my employees made 47 000 measurements in 8500 towns as part of mobile measuring teams from UKE branch offices. In the 10 000 hours that it took to make those measurements, the mobile measuring stations covered a distance of 200 000 kilometres.
It is now up to the individual citizen to decide whether or not to take advantage of the available reception.
Was the transition problem-free or were there disruptions in service provision? And what lessons can other countries learn from Poland's experience?
MG: I can say today that the switch-off in Poland was smooth and problem-free. There were some minor glitches on the actual day of switch-off or in the following few days but they concerned, for example, detuning the channels in the television set or redirecting the aerial towards the new transmitter. Nothing serious has happened, and there has been no interruption in providing services.
What would be my advice? In my opinion, determination and strength of character are required to drive this complex process. In each country, the process requires a leader and the cooperation of all stakeholders — government, regulators of the market, public and commercial broadcasters, as well as technical operators. In Poland, local administrations and local governments played an important role. Many organizations and volunteers actively joined in the process. Without the cooperation of all the players in the ecosystem, successful digitization — in Poland or in any other country — would in my opinion be impossible. All the activities need to be coordinated and require a common plan — so again what is necessary is determination and strength of character, as well as the skills to manage such a complex organizational and technical process.
How will the digital switch-over benefit viewers and Polish society as a whole?
MG: Again, thanks to digitization, Poles have gained access to a wide range of channels as well as to a higher quality television signal and additional services.
Of the seven analogue channels previously available, only three reached as much as 60 per cent of the population. After switch-off, viewers gained 22 nationwide channels of much better quality, free of charge, reaching almost the entire population.
The transition to digital transmission enables the introduction of additional services, such as electronic programme guides; ability to record, stop and rewind programmes; video-on-demand; parental control; high-resolution broadcast in different formats (4:3 and 16:9); parallel emission of several soundtracks with choice of language version or audio mode; subtitles, audio description and different language version subtitles; the possibility to transmit alarm announcements in emergency situations, for example during floods or hurricanes; and hybrid broadcast broadband television services.
In the future, the Internet, e-government, interactive educational channels, banking services and games, among other services, may also be offered.
How will the digital dividend spectrum be used?
MG: When introducing the implementation plan for digitization, we decided that the digital dividend would be used for broadband Internet access. And this is actually happening. I have just finished work on the auction documents, and by the end of this year I intend to carry out the auction for the frequencies freed up thanks to the switch-over to digital.
In my view, broadband Internet is the future. It will contribute to the development of our countries and our citizens. The radio-frequency spectrum is a powerful and important tool that we as decision-makers hold in our hands. We should manage it efficiently.