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Wednesday April 1, 2009

Fully digital TV age

By B.K. SIDHU


MCMC tender bids to pave the way

PETALING JAYA: The Malaysian Communications & Multimedia Commission (MCMC) will call for tender bids in the third quarter for the UHF 470-742 megahertz spectrum which will pave the way for the country to move into the digital television (TV) era.

Although satellite TV player Astro is already on the digital wave, the last remaining stronghold of the old analogue technology is still the country’s free-to-air TV services such as RTM 1 and 2, TV3, NTV7, 8TV and Channel 9.

The awarding of the spectrum will see the winner having to build a single digital terrestrial transmission/TV broadcast (DTTB) infrastructure for all broadcasters to ride on to transmit their TV programmes.

“Subject to government approval, we plan it to be a beauty contest-type of tender bid. We will announce the winner at the end of this year or early 2010,’’ MCMC chief operating officer Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi told StarBiz.

The winner has to commence digital roll-out soon after the award and the analogue switch-off is planned for 2015.

Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) started its trials for digital terrestrial TV since early September 2006.

With the award of the spectrum to one party – which can be a consortium of existing broadcast players, RTM, Telekom Malaysia Bhd or any other combination – there will be a shift in how broadcasters will operate in the digital TV era.

Under the current set-up, TV broadcasters are individually licensed as content application service providers (CASP) where they install their own equipment at transmission sites for their programmes.

In contrast, in the digital era, the network facilities provider (NFP) or winner of the UHF spectrum provides the transmission infrastructure and the CASP rides on the DTTB to provide digital TV programmes.

“By so doing we are creating more opportunities and a bigger platform for content providers which are essentially the TV broadcasters,’’ Sharil said.

It is up to the Government to choose the existing transmission sites or new ones for transmission purposes, but Sharil declined comment. He merely said: “Just wait for the tender documents.’’

One may easily conclude that an NFP creates a monopoly but Sharil explained that ‘‘there is nothing to stop anyone from making a bid, so long as it is commercially viable and is meant to serve all players.

By so doing, duplication of infrastructure is avoided and the CASP can focus on content aggregation instead of investing in infrastructure.’’

As digital TV technology allows for compression, the number of channels will also rise from six now to up to 66.

Sharil said digital TV offered consumers choices, better reception quality, interactive communications and - more importantly - would promote better spectrum usage.

To get digital content on the idiot box, consumers need to either invest in digital TV sets, which come with an in-built decorder, or those with analogue TVs will need a set-top box to unscramble the signals to the set.

For the players, they need to digitalise their studios and cost is a consideration.

The figure bandied around for the migration from analogue systems industry-wide to digital TV age is RM1bil to RM2bil.

“It really depends on the winner and its business plan as to how it intends to roll out digital transmission and its timelines. It is too early to comment on investment figures or even on set-top boxes,’’ Sharil said, adding that the entire migration for people to change their TV boxes from analogue to digital could take up to 10 years.

As to the market’s readiness, it would depend on compelling content at really good reception quality on top of reasonable costs for people to migrate to digital TV. There are six million TV households in the country and, by 2015, this is forecast to rise to 6.4 million. In terms of TV penetration rates, it is 95% now.

The early adopters of digital TV are Sweden, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland which have switched off their analogue systems. Britain was first to migrate in 1998 and will switch off its analogue by 2012.

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