Nº 6 2015 > Celebrating ITU’s 150 Years

Innovation and the digital dividend

Innovating with Bassil:
What is the “Digital switchover” and why does it matter?

Innovation and the digital dividend

 Television is enjoyed by billions of people around the world, and viewers will soon be able to access a range of new services and programming thanks to the “digital switchover”. Bassil Zoubi has worked in the broadcast industry for decades and he shares with us why he believes this migration to digital television is important and looks at the wide-ranging impact it can have.

For consumers, the means of watching television (TV) is simple and has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s: push a button and news from around the world, memorable storylines and images of far-flung places are beamed directly to you. Yet behind the scenes, television is a complicated affair.

This shift towards digital broadcasting means that consumers can enjoy a wider variety of shows, on multiple channels, with a better quality viewing experience. It also facilitates reduced power and energy consumption, and spectrum efficiency, which brings a host of associated benefits for consumers and broadcasters.

Working as Head of the Terrestrial Transmission Department at Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU), I help to support the wide array of stakeholders involved, from stations to engineers and end-users, to ensure a smooth transition to digital broadcasting for the Arab region.

Digital dividend

With the advance of digital technology, we are now able to broadcast more efficiently. Analogue television broadcasts occupy a large amount of spectrum, a finite natural resource and the electromagnetic “channel” over which programming travels. Where a single analogue programme can be broadcast on one transmission channel of 6 MHz to 8 MHz bandwidth, the same transmission channel could carry a multiplex of up to 20 digital programmes of equivalent quality. As spectrum is a limited resource, this is a valuable saving. The spectrum that is now being freed up as a result of the switchover from analogue to digital is known as the “digital dividend”.

Making the switch

Broadcast transmissions involve many players in the chain — content producers, chain programmers, point-to-point links (e.g. between the studio and the transmitter station), manufacturers and end users. Consequently, a lot of investment, both in terms of money and time, is needed to facilitate the switchover.

While I believe that the existing infrastructure should be used to the largest extent possible, nearly 87 million households in the Arab region will need new equipment, and thousands of stations will need to be renewed or replaced. Therefore, the transition to digital broadcasting will require a long harmonization process, but in order to go smoothly, it must involve all stakeholders as well as the media, telecommunication and frequency regulators and national legislators.

Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) plays a key role in bringing these players together to facilitate the digital switchover in the Arab region; we help to organize and coordinate the exchange of information and provide technical assistance to our members to ensure their smooth and harmonious operation. As part of this service, we have issued many studies and recommendations to help our members understand the advantages of digital transmission.

The benefits

There are many benefits to making the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting. First is the reduction in power and energy consumption and the increase in quality of service (QoS) by providing consumers with better quality transmissions such as HDTV, achieved through digital processing and compression of broadcasts.

However, the most valuable benefit both to service providers and consumers, is the amount of spectrum that is freed up once the switch has been completed: the Arab Region will have over 200 MHz spectrum from 694–698–790 MHz and 790–862 MHz. I expect that this surplus spectrum will primarily be allocated for two purposes: additional local programming, and mobile services such as International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT).

In the Arab region, television is largely watched through live broadcasting services. Less than three per cent of television is currently viewed online or through on-demand services, mostly due to the limited scope of Internet capacity and availability.

The Arab region is comprised of different backgrounds, and has a rich cultural history. As the dividend will facilitate additional local programming, I hope that this programming will be geared towards promoting a culture of tolerance, and help to preserve the different communities.

The digital dividend is expected to be allocated for mobile services such as IMT, which will facilitate the further deployment of mobile broadband services in the Arab region, providing better coverage for highly dense and rural areas. As the Internet plays an important role in delivering a variety of services to customers, such as education and raising literacy rates, increasing the availability of mobile broadband will, in my personal opinion, have a positive impact on the region.

This article is an abridgement.
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Celebrating ITU’s 150 Years

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