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All clear on the Digital Front

Beginning of the end looms for analogue TV

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Along with the transition in telecommunication to 3G network, consumers will have a new experience as digital television is primed to be up and running next year. 

Digital broadcast technology will transform the television viewing experience. It will enable companies to offer better television broadcast with better picture and sound quality, multiple programming choices and interactive capabilities.

A significant benefit of the conversion to digital broadcast is that it will free up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum.

Unlike the analogue system in use at present, digital television uses a single frequency network, so it saves frequency utilisation.

Broadcast stations are able to offer several channels of digital programming at the same time, using the same amount of spectrum required for one analogue programme, according to Dr Thawatchai Jittrapanun, commissioner at the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).

From the present six free television channels _ 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 and ThaiPBS _ digital broadcast will enable the audiences to view programmes from up to 48 channels. In the middle of next year, the NBTC will announce the licenses for digital television broadcast. Some TV stations such as ThaiPBS are already conducting trail runs, and next year viewers will get to experience the digital switch as more channels embark down the road while retaining their analogue transmissions.

An increase in the number of channels will help reduce monopoly on television broadcast as the audiences will have more choice of programmes. According to the NBTC, there will be 48 digital outlets comprising of 12 community channels, 12 public channels and 20 commercial channels, while the remaining four will be high definition television (HDTV).

The commissioner pointed out that with the same broadcast frequency, one channel on the analogue system is good for 12 channels of standard definition (SD) digital TV or three channels of high definition (HD) television. Besides more channels and better quality of picture and sound, the digital system is better equipped to respond to consumers' requirements. For example it has a computer-like feature, which is an application for receiving audience feedback.

"With more channels on tap, one can go niche by tuning to sport, food, travel or technology channels," said Dr Thawatchai. Additional channels, meanwhile, will open opportunities for new players, so there will be much more content development and consumers will have more alternatives.

Given digital technology's higher capability, the television industry needs to adjust from upstream _ such as content providers and advertising agencies _ to downstream which covers all types of receivers that have to be attuned to the new technology such as TV display, mobile TV, IPTV and tablets.

The NBTC is now preparing and will in due course announce a list of "must-have" and "non-exclusive" programmes the stations must broadcast.

According to the NBTC, 84% of the population in Thailand has access to television, mostly via terrestrial or free TV (48.8%), while 28.7% and 25.5% of households have access to cable and satellite TV respectively.

Digital services will be delivered via a set-top box and the NBTC will support the transformation to digital mode, especially community channels. Thawatchai noted that on the issue of set-top boxes, the government must subsidise costs by offering public loans or coupons, and also support local manufacturers in terms of specification. The time required for moving to digital television technology varies from country to country, and it can be anything from three to 10 years. For Thailand, the NBTC will issue licenses, instead of concessions, to private companies next year, said Dr Thawatchai, noting the country was learning from how others approached the matter, and will adapt it accordingly to fit with the system in place in Thailand.

For commercial channels, the licences will be decided through auctions. In the meantime some major television stations are conducting trial digital runs in parallel with the existing analogue system.

"Once viewers see the benefits of digital television, they will be inclined to go for the set-top box. We, meanwhile, are studying pricing. The more channels, the more suppliers lining up to offer them," he said.

Dr Pana Thongmeearkom, commissioner at the Office of Public Fund for Telecommunication Development, noted that apart from leading to a convergence of data communications, broadcast and telecommunications, digital television will also eliminate the obstacle of place and time with an attribute called "Time shift TV".

Viewers can view any broadcast anytime by recording the programme they are interested in and watching it later. Or while they are viewing the programme, they can record another programme on a different channel.

Via another feature, "Place shift TV", they can even view programmes they have recorded at a different place. Digital television allows viewers to set the controls via software or hardware: with just one click they can dig into any source and record it, from hard disk or the Cloud.

In addition, the efficiency of digital technology opens an opportunity to separate between multiplexers and content providers. In the past, the television industry could not break the linkup between multiplexers or aggregators, who oversee the network, and the content providers, so analogue television stations had to also act as telecom providers, in spite of the fact that the core product or core service was the content.

"With a clear separation in the functions of broadcasting network providers, facility providers, and service providers (content providers), each can concentrate on their businesses," said Dr Pana.

An increase in the number of channels will lead television stations to finetune their positions, adjust to a specific area to serve their target groups. Eventually it will be like the radio format or programmes on cable or satellite television where channels focus on their niche areas.

The NBTC has said there will be 12 public channels, but it has not yet stated how many will be for national and regional use.

Public television has one constraint: it can't run commercials, which severely limits its ability to stand on its own. Dr Pana has asked how much money will be needed to support such operations. Overseas, this trend has undergone a tremendous change, with public television now allowed to run ads to support their operations. It is a necessary change, but is this going to happen in Thailand any time soon?

According to Assist Prof Dr Pasu Kaewplung of the Department of Electrical Engineering, Chulalongkorn University, digital television will definitely come to Thailand next year and 80% of households in major cities will have access to it by 2017, while the analogue system to be gone by 2020.

"The most significant factor in the proliferation of digital television in Thailand is going to be the set-top box, or rather its price. It should be offered to the public free of charge," he added.

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