The switch to digital broadcasting in South Africa: with an all-digital content value chain – what opportunities await?
9 January 2011
With switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting set for December 2013 in South Africa and the Department of Communications announcing plans to commence its marketing campaign to the public ‘before the 2011 festive season’, a number of questions around one key item – the set top box – need to be asked. Cheap and nasty may not be the way to go – not for broadcasters peering into the vast well of opportunity that going ‘all-digital’ offers; and not for South Africa’s public, a significant portion of which still need to take the first step onto that bridge that spans the digital divide.
Jasco Broadcast Solutions has a 30-year history in the broadcasting industry, and has assisted its customers through the migration to digital along the entire broadcast value chain – from acquisition to production, post-production, storage and transmission. On each step of this journey, broadcasters have realised immense benefits: ‘digital everything’ means better quality, less effort, greater flexibility, and better management capabilities. But all the technology in the world is not worth much if this new freedom to repackage and repurpose content, and send it to viewers along different channels (TV broadcast but also any IP channel) and to different end devices (mobile phone, TV, laptop, gaming device) cannot be monetised.
As we switch to digital broadcast, the most obvious benefit for broadcasters is the capability to put out more channels at less cost. For the viewer this means more choice. But to view the digital content, which will be broadcast to a conventional TV antenna or aerial, a set top box (STB) that converts the signal from digital to analogue is needed. For a large segment of South Africa’s more than 14 million TV set owners, the cost of such a device is prohibitive – which is why government will be subsidising their purchase by 6% of the population. The bigger question, however, is the capability these locally manufactured STB’s will have.
Digital broadcast brings interactive voice, video and data capabilities. The business models that digital content is spawning can be seen in international markets. Mobile TV, IPTV, Internet browsing from the TV set, interactive gaming and shopping. the list goes on.
Cisco Systems, in fact, did a study at the beginning of 2011 looking at the future of TV. It came up with the following:
. with access to multiple libraries of content, on-demand viewing will
make ‘channels’ as we know them something of the past;
. screens will be everywhere – mounted on walls, used as mirrors,
wristwatches, phones, laptops, PC screens and gaming devices;
. advertising will change since we can choose what we view – goodbye
. you are the star – amateur video, like YouTube videos, will be
. you can take your content with you everywhere, transferring content
from one device to another or from the cloud as you move through your
More players – notably in the packet based Internet Protocol (IP) realm (which needs to be distinguished from digital terrestrial and satellite
signals) – are entering the fray as content truly becomes king and accessing it becomes ever easier. While bandwidth cost and availability in South Africa, despite recent advances, are still not at levels suitable to make international business models an immediate reality, they may be closer than we think. Netflix, which launched in the US in 1997 (that’s 14 years ago) is a supplier of on-demand Internet streaming media that essentially allows users to pick from an archive of movie and TV programmes, then delivers the content using telecommunications channels to computers running Windows or Mac OS X and to compatible devices, which include Microsoft’s Xbox (Netflix via Wii) and a number of Blu-Ray Disc players. Then there’s Google TV, an interactive television overlay that provides an interface to existing internet TV and WebTV sites, allowing users to access the Internet, browse websites and watch TV. Any Android or Apple mobile device can be used for a remote, and Google TV products – high-definition Sony television sets and Blu-Ray Disc players that incorporate the Google TV platform, as well as Logitech set top boxes – come with a remote that has a full QWERTY keyboard.
Will broadcasters be leapfrogged?
These are exciting developments – and frightening to some degree for broadcasters who will have to rethink their business models, ensuring they remain competitive by launching the value-added services and capabilities their customers will demand. Even so-called ‘third-world’ customers.
For broadcasters, one of the biggest challenges is finding new ways to monetize their services. With advertising revenues being eliminated by technologies that give users the means to avoid or skip over ad breaks, new revenue creating business models need to be developed. Is the writing on the wall for broadcasting as we know it? These players may have as little as a five year window to reinvent themselves. They dare not underestimate appetite for adoption of new technologies and services that are relevant to a new ‘digital’ lifestyle.
As the fevered adoption of mobile technology across the African continent shows, people, and perhaps especially the poor that have been marginalised and stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide for too long, are hungry for input, connectivity and content of their choice.
For countries like those on the African continent where basic infrastructure
– for communication, education, healthcare – is limited, digital broadcast offers not only the opportunity to introduce more educational content and e-Government services, but bridge the digital divide. A cheap, limited functionality STB won’t make that possible. One-way, downstream communication from the broadcaster is a limiting option.
Broadcasters in South Africa still have a long way to go in terms of understanding the intricacies of operating and managing these new services, business models and client relationships. If fact, for many, the first technology pilots are only now getting underway. Jasco Broadcast Solutions’
domain is technology and equipment supply, solution design and implementation. As we look globally to find the best solutions to meet our clients’ needs, we are seeing, at a very different level, the beginning of an immense transformation in the industry. The technology is here. How it is applied will make all the difference to the ongoing competitiveness of broadcasters.
Here’s hoping the DoC’s standards for the set top box, which include interactivity (a USB port for connectivity, by cell phone or network), are not bypassed for ‘affordability’.
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