"The Asia Pacific may demand a different approach to digital TV"


Technical Director of the Asia Pacific Broadcast Union, Om Khushu has 40 years of experience in broadcasting. At Doordarshan he rose to become engineer-in-chief. During his tenure with the public broadcaster, he was a member of the technical advisory committee for the Indian satellite system, INSAT, closely associated with the Indian Standards Institution, and two of its sectional Committees.

He was also the vice chairman of the International Radio Consultative Committee's broadcasting study group for eight years and, an ITU expert in Thailand. During the past decade as ABU's technical director, Khushu has held a range of important positions. He was past chairman and is the current vice chairman of the technical committee of the World Broadcasting Union. Khushu is conference chairman of BroadcastAsia (Asia Pacific region's leading industry event), and council member of the International Broadcasting Convention. He has represented India and the Asia Pacific Broadcast Union at a number of administrative conferences of the International Telecommunications Union, and other international events.

Indiantelevision.com interviewed Khushu on the digital broadcasting scenario in the Asia Pacific via email. Excerpts from his responses.

What are your comments on the movement towards digital broadcasting in Asia?

A number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region are moving towards the introduction of digital services. However, the task of moving into the new world of digital production, distribution and delivery is so formidable, it would be unrealistic to expect the transition to be completed anytime soon.

Most of the new programme production facilities being constructed in the Region are digital from the start, so the main task for the future will be digitalization of the transmission path. Many technology and equipment suppliers around the world have recognised Asia-Pacific as a major market and are aggressively positioning themselves for what they believe will develop into a profitable future.

Is it happening right?

In several ways, digital broadcasting is work in progress and only the future will tell whether the right strategic and business decisions are being made. Clear signals have not yet emerged from the American and European markets where digital broadcasting has been extensively introduced and in any case, circumstances of the Asia-Pacific region may well demand different approaches and solutions.

What is the common standard that a majority of Asia has opted for (both audio and video) for both production, post production and telecast ? Why do you think they have gone for that standard? Could they have done better?

Most countries seem to favour a COFDM based digital transmission system. Australia, Singapore and India have announced the selection of DVB as the terrestrial television system. Japan has developed its own COFDM based system called ISDB-T, which has been adopted as the standard for the country.

South Korea and Taiwan have selected ATSC but broadcasters are aggressively demanding a review. The choice in favour of a COFDM system is based on its superior performance in multipath and mobile environments, and its ability to support standard definition as well as high definition broadcasts.

I believe that a COFDM based system is indeed the best choice if service is not required to be confined to fixed receivers with outdoor aerials.

For programme production, most broadcasters have adopted compression schemes based on the MPEG 4:2:2 sampling format. This is indeed a good choice because other schemes can lead to quality degradation when complex or layered signal manipulation, cascaded transcoding or up-conversion are performed.

For acquisition purposes, both DV and MPEG based formats are coming into widespread use and this is not seen as a major issue.

Are we seeing any patterns emerging from the adoption of digital by Asia?

Apart from the widespread adoption of COFDM based transmission systems, a common view seems to exist that simulcast of analogue and digital broadcast is indeed the right approach for a smooth transition. Most broadcasters are agreed that capabilities must exist both for fixed and mobile reception. They also see data and multimedia broadcasting as an essential service opportunity for the future.

Which Asian nations are ahead in the digitization game? What are THEY DOING right?

Australia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea seem to be well ahead of others. Australian has made the digital transition from January 1, 2001 with HDTV as the centrepiece application.

In Japan, digital terrestrial service is planned to start in the year 2003 again with HDTV as the major service. (Digital HDTV service by satellite began at 2000-end).

In South Korea, a regular digital terrestrial service is planned to start in Seoul from the year 2001, extending to other major cities in 2002. Singapore has issued digital licenses to two broadcasters and is pioneering a mobile service, which is planned to begin by the end of the current year.

India has selected a transmission standard and it is expected that experimental services will start in the near future, initially at the major metropolitan centres.

Which Asian nations are lagging? What do they need to do right? Digital television has only just begun to happen, so it is hard to say which Asian nations may lag behind.

Although it is well accepted that the future of television, as indeed all media, is digital and staying for long in the comfort of old analog technology is not an option, various countries will obviously use their own road maps to the digital future. What is, however, necessary is that regardless of the timetables, all broadcasters must prepare right from now, not in isolation but in partnership with all stakeholders including government agencies, regulators, manufacturers of professional and consumer equipment, and other players who will no doubt compete with them in the convergence Market place.

Success or failure will critically depend on strategic choices and the soundness of business plans.

Do you think schedules in Asia for digitization will be met? What will hold back projects?

There is no reason to believe that those broadcasters who have announced their digital plans will fall behind on their timetables. The major obstacles to cross will be finance, frequency planning and availability of content.

What is the amount that has to be invested to give viewers and listeners a near real world and enhanced experience? Do you think customers will take it up?

Multi-million dollar investments will be required to bring digital television to the public. In Australia, for example, it has been estimated that the national broadcaster, ABC, will require a capital investment of the order of A$200 million simply on the digitalization of its network and programme distribution, not including the cost of establishing and operating new digital transmitters across the country, which will involve an annual outlay of approximately A$30 to A$40 million dollars. In addition, there will be an expenditure of around A$30 million per annum for simulcast obligations, as well as additional programme production costs.

BBC (UK) has planned to spend about ?1 billion over the initial five years of digital broadcasting.

We must also remember that cost to the broadcasters is only a relatively small part of the total investment as the majority of the cost will lie in the home receivers.

Will the customers take it up?

This will depend on what is required of them. In the UK for example, the service providers supply set-top boxes free of charge and this model has led to a very rapid growth of penetration. On the other hand, in the USA, where the main focus is on HDTV, the up-take of receivers has been slow because an integrated HDTV receiver presently costs as much as US$5,000 or more - an amount that is considered excessive even by the relatively affluent American consumer.

The lesson here is that a good business model is an essential pre-requisite for the success of digital broadcasting.

Can you visualize a digital broadcasting facility (what will it look like) in the near future in an era of rapid Internet deployment?

It is obvious that digital television will be driven largely by content and if it is not compelling, there will be no interest in purchasing receivers and without receivers there will be no audience. And in order to produce such content, the emerging digital production environment will need to be radically different from what we have been accustomed to in the past.

Compression will be central to the architecture of a digital production facility and automation will be necessary because of the quantity of content to be produced as well as the need to relieve operators from boring, repetitive functions that normally take up so much of their time. The idea of high performance networking of distributed production facilities is perceived as a natural follow-up of the digitalisation of studio equipment and use of computing devices for production and post-production of programme content.

The demand for content to support new delivery media, including the Internet, will require facilities to be created for re-packaging and re-purposing of programme material, including the archives. Indeed producing content suitable for all delivery means and for all screens will impose an entirely new approach to production that is best suited for the businesses that the broadcaster may be engaged in.

It seems possible that we will see more and more of disk-based storage rather than tape in production facilities of the future.

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