'B'cast pros will benefit from tec choices at Expo' : AS Guin - Engineer-in-chief at AIR and president, BES

The NGO Broadcast Engineers Society is holding its 13th Expo this year from February 1 to February 3 at Delhi's Pragati Maidan. It is a much larger exposition this year, and with the government setting the cut-off date for digitalisation, will showcase technology options. Possibly the most socially significant technology presented will be the low-band community radio system, supported by Unesco.'s Sujit Chakraborty met AS Guin, engineer-in-chief at AIR and president, BES, to find out what's on offer this year.


The BES Expo is just a few days away. What are the new things expected this year?

There are many changes in respect to last year. The participation has grown manifold and instead of the earlier venue of Hotel Taj Palace, as in 2006, this year we have to shift to a much larger arena, the Pragati Maidan, which gives us 20 per cent additional space.

In terms of revenue, what is BES' business model?

Here too, there will be a 20 per cent rise in receipts. There will be 16 new companies who will take part for the first time. BES depends mainly on revenue from the exhibitions and membership. We have 1,600 members across the country, and we expect the number to grow further next year. We have to cut some of the costs, but then we also plan to start an educational programme, which will be no-loss, no-profit.

What are the major technological windows that you wish to open this time?

The biggest is of course the community radio solutions and mobile TV and radio. These would be most important in terms of both business and community service, with local NGOs being able to broadcast on their own radio, with all the support of AIR experts. Even our retired engineering staff is willing to offer their services free to persons willing to set up local channels.

As I told you, we have 1,600 members across the country and they give us a tremendous outreach to help spread the low-band community radio movement. We are very excited about this programme, which will be a prime exhibit this year.

Who all are supporting this event?

The event is supported by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting , Government of India, and endorsed by International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers and also by Prasar Bharati, Asian Broadcasting Union, UNESCO, IGNOU and Department of Information Technology, Government of India.

UNESCO is going to showcase its low-cost technological innovations and is with us at BES EXPO 2007, and will push forward the community radio programme. They are going to present suitcase radio, hand-wound sets (which need no battery or electricity to run) solar-powered FM transmitters, and other radio equipment compatible with Indian conditions.

They will also set up in their stall a community multi-media centre, including radio, internet, and content networking programme, with live content programming.

Many private sportscasters have announced their mobile programmes and one is running already, but these show snaps only. So how is your system going to be different?

No, ours will be a full streaming. This will not be clips. In fact, this will completely shift prime time to office time, with people seeing DD or hearing AIR news and programmes on their way to office. These will not be clips, but as you see or hear news.

'New technology will always remain in the public domain, because of the sheer scale of operational costs, which the private sector would find very difficult to match'

Is this Prasar Bharati's own technology?

There is technology available in Europe and the US. The latter is using the MediaFlo. technology and Europe is using DVB-H. MediaFlo is a proprietary system, while DVB-H is an open system. An expert committee constituted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has recommended DVB-H .With Secretary level approval a final decision is still awaited.

What are the technical and operational differences in the two?

DVB-H is IP-based and an open platform, where as MediaFlo has proprietary elements MediaFlo has less channel switching time than DVB-H. Both employ battery-saving techniques. They have different encoding and modulation schemes.

What is the delay, and how long would it take?

The proposal has been sent to the Planning Commission, which will study it and will have to sanction money. This could take eight to 10 months.

What will be the outcome of the event?

Broadcast professionals will be highly benefited in enhancing their knowledge about emerging broadcast technologies and also have a look and feel of new broadcast equipment systems in the exhibition. It will help the broadcast planners to choose viable and right technologies for their digitalisation plans.

You have said that AIR and DD will turn digital during the 11th Plan. What is the cost you are looking at?

For AIR, we have asked for something like Rs 5,900 crore and for DD another Rs 6,000 crore. But these are very large sums of money and chances are we might not get it all during the 11th Plan itself. But even if we get something like half of this, we could go digital and AIR could have seven digital channels. The output would be almost FM quality.

Would these channels be available on the normal radio sets we use today?

No, that technology is not available so far and even in the west, it is very costly, about $80 for a digital radio handset.New technology will always remain in the public domain, because of the sheer scale of operational costs, which the private sector would find very difficult to match.

This will completely take away perhaps the only joy of millions of poor Indians who are totally dependent on AIR for news and entertainment, besides the public services as on health and agricultural advice. Well, the decision to go digital, across the world, has been taken, so this will have to happen. In any case the cut-off date set by the government for transition from analogue to digital is 2015. But then, as demand goes up, the prices will come down. A normal radio handset now costs Rs 200, and these sets will cost something like Rs 500, at the most, with cheaper technology coming in. But do remember that the audience will have a choice of seven channels.

Any other benefits on offer for this costly technology?

Interactive broadcasts and a number of value-added services will be possible. Well, one of the most important things will be the pro-active role AIR will get to play in disaster management. We will introduce a system all across the channels on the coastal belts, which will be integrated with the early warning systems. Thus, whenever an early warning is triggered off the computer linkage with the radio stations will ensure that the channel would automatically switch over to transmitting the warning, with the ongoing programme switched off. Once the warning has been issued, the radio station would switch over to the normal ongoing programme. This will give a huge lead time for people to evacuate.

How do you see prices coming down?

Take the example of DTH. When it started the companies were asking for Rs 5,000 per dish, but we are now giving our DTH, DD Direct Plus at Rs 1,200. So this depends on two things, content and demand.

Who are you looking to as technical collaborators?

You see, the US has HD radio, and Korea uses DMB but that's mostly for TV. China uses DRM technology for external services. We have spoken with China about DRM .It has shown a keen interest and once the two countries collaborate, the prices of receivers would dramatically come down. China would have to collaborate to set up factories in India, because if we have to import, prices would be very high.

What are the network plans?

The digitalisation process would start with all the studios. It would be the Short Wave transmissions that would go digital first. Each state capital would have one Short Wave transmitter and there will be three transmission complexes with five transmitters per complex for national digital radio coverage. These complexes will be suitably located., Each complex will transmit five digital channels across the country, including regional language channels. This will mean that these channels will be accessible across the country. So, a Bengali in Mumbai would not have a problem if he wishes to hear All India Radio Kolkata.

Being a public broadcaster, how do you think the private players would match your line of thinking?

Interestingly, I think that introduction of new technology will always remain in the public domain, due to the sheer scale of operations and costs that private enterprise would find it difficult to match. This is a Plan expenditure with government support. Only after it is introduced in the country will public private participation happen. For example, the private players have invested a huge amount in Phase 1 and 2 of FM, which is in the analogue mode. AIR is proposing digital FM in the near future, using DRM+, or DAB or HD Radio technology. But forget replacing the existing transmitters, even initial investment will not be easy for the private entrepreneurs, unless the receivers for digital broadcasting become low cost and catch the imagination of the public.

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