Clash of the Digital Video Broadcasting Standards: Will China Snatch Victory?

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A titanic struggle is underway between the tigers of Asia, the genius of Europe and the ebbing might of the United States to win international market share for standards governing digital video broadcasting.

Over the last few years both the United States and Europe have completed — sometimes messy — switchovers over from analog TV sets to Digital Television (DTV), ushering in a new era of crystal-clear high fidelity TV.

The rest of the world is about to join them.

At stake are millions of dollars based on patents owned by individual companies on both sides of the Atlantic. They are now looking beyond their borders to install their standards in foreign states and create economic windfalls based on the underlying patents.

Broadcasters and government officials are boarding planes, trains and cars on trade missions to Costa Rica, South Africa,Paraguay, Venezuela — and more — in last minute bids to influence technology oversight committees and sway key people in power.

No player — except maybe China — holds all the technical cards, but some have more chips in the game.

This game is called Digital Video Broadcasting, the cards are four open standards governing DTV, and the chips are represented by how many nations adopt a particular standard.

The four standards in contention are: Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) representing the United States, Digital Video Body (DVB) representing Europe, Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting (ISDB) representing Japan, and Digital Terrestrial Multimedia Broadcast (DTMB) representing China.

Each standard has it own technical strengths and weaknesses, including different audio and transmission features. There are a number of commonalities between them, but standards developed later often contain more advanced methods for maintaining the integrity of the transmitted message along with other advantages in mobile and 3D broadcasting.

According to a 1997 article entitled “U.S. and Europe in Battle Over Digital TV” by the New York Times, more than half of the world’s television viewers get their service from an antenna, not cable or satellite systems. It’s this ”terrestrial” broadcasting, as over-the-air service is known, that is the target today.

The decision to adopt a standard is often political, sometimes economical and occasionally, far-sighted.

If one could color-code the Earth with standards adopted by each country, a casual observer would very quickly ascertain which of the four standards holds the ascendancy.

And, actually, this is exactly what the Digital Broadcasting Experts Group (DIBERG) did with its Launching Country map. As of June, 2010, it illustrates a closely contested battle marked by two key characteristics: Africa is wide open and China remains coiled — like a snake ready to strike.

As the New York Times puts it: “Everybody and I mean everybody, outside the United States and Europe is still thinking about it [standards].”

The Scramble for Africa

The spread of standards, resembles in many ways, the European colonial powers scramble for Africa in in the late 19th Century, which left the continent ransacked and impotent.

But, this time, Africa in particular, can choose it’s master and this is creating all kinds of political and economic ramifications back in the powerful countries where the standards first originated.

Just about every week there is a breaking news story about one country or another that has adopted one of the four standards. Sometimes the decision is controversial, taking industry players by surprise.

South Africa

This happened during May 2010, in South Africa, where it was announced that the government is reconsidering it’s support for the European DVB standard.

According to the Business Report Magazine it’s reviewing Japan’s ISDB technology after South African Broadcasting Chairman (SABC), Ben Ngubane, a former South African ambassador to Japan, met a Japanese delegation.

The decision is highly controversial, as a number of signal distributors, including State-run Sentech, had had already installed a number of DVB digital broadcast transponders since the original European DVB standard was adopted in 2005.

If executed, this costly change could amount to billions of South African Rands. South Africa had originally targeted 2011 to complete the switch, but this date may now be in jeopardy. If the ISDB standard does get adopted by South Africa, it will be the first victory for Japan’s standard in Africa and offer some serious competition to the DVB which has an established presence in Namibia and Morocco.

South Africa has thus become a strategic battle ground for standards governing digital video broadcasting resembling Great Britain’s successful bid to secure the Cape Colony as a vital route to the East during the Scramble for Africa in the latter part of the 19th Century.

According to the Business Times, as yet no African country has completed the migration process although several have published their plans to handle the migration including: Kenya, Mauritania, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

Ghana

Ghana is incurring the wrath of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) who has threatened to withdraw protection of Ghana’s TV stations if the country does not switch over from analog to digital terrestrial broadcasting in the next six years, says Business Times Magazine.

The majority of TV sets currently in peoples’ homes cannot receive digital pictures. This means viewers will have to purchase special devices known as Set Top Boxes (STBs) to be able to receive digital signals. This will come at extra cost and pose other installation challenges.
The government may be forced to subsidize the process, although this is still open to debate.

Uganda

The DBB project reports that Uganda has launched a digital terrestrial television (DTT) pilot project in Kampala involving 200 households. Using the DVB-T standard, up to seven channels are available to viewers taking part in the trial.
A Swedish company, Next Generation Broadcasting (NBG) is broadcasting the digital signals in partnership with the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC).
According to the DVB website, the government is considering subsidizing the costs to encourage the switch from analog to digital TV.
Of the 31 million people in this country only 1 million own TV sets. The expected switchover date from analog to digital broadcasting is forecast for December 2012.

Central & South America

report by NexTV Latam indicates that by 2015, 60 million Latin American homes will be fitted with receivers that will capture Free-To-Air Digital TV.

Of this amount, 53.5 million fall under its terrestrial variant (DTT) and the other 6.4 million via satellite (DTH).

25.6 million of homes will receive DTT through set-top boxes. At least 99.7 million of the TV sets will have integrated digital receivers (iDTV) for DTT, most of them connected to Pay TV operators.

18 Latin American countries were analyzed in the report presenting 60 million homes.

Free-To-Air digital TV will account for 38% of the total Latin American homes fitted with TV sets and the 59% of homes with Free-To-Air TV reception.

Between October 2009 and June 2010, Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay and Cost Rica have all adopted the ISDB-T standard confirming Japan’s dominance in this region. Only Columbia and Uruguay have opted for Europe’s DVB standard.

As of June 2, 2010, Reuters reports that DIBERG has been promoting the Japanese standard through high profile companies such as NEC Corp, Fuji Television Network and Sony Corp.

This is the same delegation applying pressure on the South African government to adopt the Japanese standard and drop the pan-European DVB-T standard.

United States

The standard granddaddy of them all. The United States got there first in 1990 when the General Instrument Corporation developed the first digital television.

This lead to the ATSC standard in 1993 via the Grand Alliance.

The IEEE Spectrum Magazine reports the ATSC standard uses a Vestigial Sideband Modulation Scheme, which means the payload bits are mapped to eight different levels in the vestigial sideband. This scheme meets the needs of a large-screen digital television that’s in a fixed location. Since this standard was developed before the time of the e.g. iPhone, it lacks support for mobile television which may well become the next big thing.

According to the New York Times, Europe had for years expressed zero interest in a digital video broadcasting standard, including work by the Grand Alliance, preferring to milk the remaining profits from existing analog systems. But by 1993, they woke up to the coming revolution and started putting together their DVB standard.

Meanwhile, the United State’s Grand Alliance tinkered and toyed with it’s ATSC system, fine-tuning and calibrating its transmission protocols to work with computer systems.

DVB understood the value of first-mover advantage and sought to establish an international market for it’s incomplete system, mainly through direct-broadcast satellite and cable companies, while the United States engaged in computer interoperability debates.

By June 2010, only Korea had adopted the ATSC standard outside North America, while the DVB had stretched its influence all over Europe, Australia, parts of Africa and South America.

Europe

The DVB Project began in earnest in 1993 when the pan-European group made an early decision to use digital ‘containers’ to carry any combination of image, audio, or multimedia.

They would thus be open and ready for SDTV, EDTV, HDTV, surround sound, or any kind of new media which arose over time.

This made it slightly more flexible than the competing American ATSC standard. For example, ATSC does not allow portable reception by cellular phone, while DVB does have this capability.

According to the IEEE Spectrum Magazine, the DVB standard uses COFDM (Coded Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing), which makes bandwidth available to send picture data. This results in a slightly lower resolution but has the advantage of mobile TV support.

The project first started work on satellite and cable broadcast capability since there were fewer technical and regulatory roadblocks in the way.

The DVB-Terrestrial standard was left to last as it was inherently more complex to develop and engineers had to cope with different bandwidth and noise challenges.

According to the DVB Project, the future points towards greater convergence between different delivery systems, broadcast and point to point Thus, one of it’s chief aims is to stimulate convergence of media systems.

South Korea

This Asian powerhouse flip-flopped a bit before taking the plunge and joining a tiny group of countries outside of the United States who have bravely selected the ATSC system.

They are an important market to watch as they are regarded as the world leaders in mobile TV where viewers can receive free, live TV broadcasts.

The New York Times reports that South Korean fans can follow a live broadcast of the 2010 South African World Cup Soccer matches on their mobile phones. South Korea has provided free-to-air mobile TV to their citizens since 2005.

According to the New York Times, 27 million people — 56 percent of the population — watch TV regularly on their mobile phones.

South Korea plans to end analog television in favor of DTV by December 2012.

Japan

Japan foresaw the need for a digital standards in the early 1990s, including the need to harmonize HDTV and SDTV in the short term. Japan also recognized the importance of the Internet and how it would influence “datacasting”, thus merging this requirement into their standard.

Finally, as with the rest of Asia, mobile was a key pivot point in any discussion on a new standard.

The result is the ISBD-T system which has taken Latin America by storm and may make its first mark in Africa, if the South Africans adopt the standard (This is not definite yet, but it is a possibility.)

Some stand-out features of this standard include the ability to filter out noise and interference. The ability to interface with Internet-enabled devices and networked systems are also key characteristics, as is the ability to receive broadcasts on mobile phones. It is probably technically superior to both the ATSC and DVB standard, but could fall short of matching China’s emerging DTMB Standard.

Clearly Japan has its sights on Africa after locking down South America. Recent conquests include Costa Rica and Ecuador.

China

Call it what you will — a sleeping giant or a dark horse. Either way, China probably has the most sophisticated standards out there. The standard’s initial impetus was China’s desire to get a digital protocol ready for the Beijing Olympics in the Summer of 2006.

China took a good, long hard look at both the ATSC and DVB standards and decided they could do better. They came up with the GB20600-2006 standard which fully supports both fixed and mobile systems. It can also send high resolution images, thanks to newer modulation schemes and information-encoding technologies.

The DTMB standard supports maximum payloads of nearly 24 Mb/s compared with 19 Mb/s in the United States, and mobile reception at speeds greater than 200 km/h compared with similar speeds supported by DVB.

And, watch out, this beast will not stop working in a bad rain storm or even a Monsoon — it’s that robust.
Not fragile, this technology won’t break apart, even at 200 kilometers per hour—you can watch a broadcast on a cellphone while sitting on a high-speed train.

This has the United States scrambling to jury rig their ATSC standard to offer some form of mobile reception. It’s bad enough they have the Chinese building space rockets to the moon, nevermind beating them at the digital game!

The Rise of 3D TV

James Cameron gate-crashed the 3D party with Avatar, the highest grossing movie in the history of film.

But perhaps the bigger story is the fact that he targeted the movie at future 3D enabled TV sets.

In June 2010, Reuters reports that manufacturers hope the technology will be as big a boost for the industry as the transition to color television from black and white.

The hurdle: high costs for content makers thereby limiting programming content.

Cameron, not deterred, stated that movie studios needed to take up the challenge and start shooting in 3-D: “We’re going to have 3D TVs all around us … and we’re going to need thousands of hours of sports, comedy and music and all kinds of entertainment.”

According to Reuters, global demand for 3D TVs may reach 15.6 million units in 2013 from an estimated 1.2 million this year.

Numbers could reach 64 million in 2018 while total sales revenues may climb to $17 billion.

In 2010, Korea announced that Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics had both released 3D televisions. Sony Corporation of Japan is also expected to release a 3D set in 2010

As can be expected the standard bodies have made 3D a priority. The DVB Project began work on 3D TV in 2009. There are two groups working on 3D TV.

One is the CM-3DTV group, preparing commercial requirements for 3D TV which will serve as the development foundation for DVB technical specifications.

It’s likely that there will be two phases of 3D TV systems, to respond to two sets of commercial environments. This work may overlap with similar research being done by other bodies such as the HDMI, the ITU, SMPTE and the ISO/IEC MPEG.

Tech Watch reports that current 3D TV displays all call for the viewer to use special glasses to obtain the stereoscopic effect, but this is a familiar requirement for those who enjoy 3D at the cinema today.

A critical component of 3D TV using set-top boxes will be the connection between the set-top box and the 3D TV display, and here the DVB Project will be matching the provisions of the HDMI connector for the 3D TV environment.

The Digital End Game

The recent web browser wars between Microsoft, Mozilla, Safari, Opera and others taught us that diversity is not always a good thing for the consumer.

It raised development costs for web applications which required browser sniffing code to detect the version, capability and ensure the customer experienced the correct outcome while using the app.

On the other, hand it gave us an alternative to Internet Explorer, through browsers like Mozilla and Opera – both great products with a loyal following. Along the way there were law suits, technical bugs and sometimes, customer confusion.

On a similar digital chessboard, a powerful endgame is being played out by the major powers for control of   standards governing digital broadcasting.

In the mad scramble to fill the remaining parts of the world with a particular standard, technical considerations are not always the de facto reason for installing the standard. This either means higher costs for the customer or subsidies from the government to ease the transition to digital.

However, despite these concerns, it is an exciting period for digital media in general. Not since the color TV has there been such a distinct changing of the guard.

Looking beyond High Fidelity programming, there is also the promise of the datacasting, 3D content and the ability to view TV on a mobile phone while sitting on a high speed train bound for Beijing.

In the middle of this mad scramble sits Africa, with the digital lights still turned off. Japan and Europe have already made their play at the dark continent, which may not be dark for much longer.

Traditionally China has been a big, often silent, investor in Africa, requiring a dumping ground for its surplus cash and rising growth. Do not be surprised to see China make a last minute dash for Africa.

With all eyes on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, expect to see Africa’s profile continue to rise. One look at digital map shows this continent as the last true frontier awaiting digital conversion.

Just as China benefited from building its standard last, it is conceivable that Africa may reap the awards of of learning from the mistakes of those that adopted standards before it: United States, Latin America and Europe.

There also is an opportunity to choose the ‘right’ standard, not just the one currently available. It may also be another golden opportunity to leap frog the industrial nations and mimic South Korea’s leadership in digital mobile technology and China’s ability to cherry pick the best elements of available technologies as they did with the DTMB standard. Keep your eyes glued to that digital screen — it’s gonna be an exciting ride!

References

Reuters: Paraguay Adopts Japanese Digital TV Standard

eHow: What is Digital Video Broadcasting?

HDTV Magazine: DTV Around the World – The US DTV System, Not So Popular Around the World

New York Times: US and Europe in battle over digital TV

Digital Video Broadcasting Project: About DVD

New York Times: Times Topics: Digital Television Transition

IEEE Spectrum: Does China Have the Best Digital Televsion Standard on the Planet

Biz Community: SA Set To Abandon digital TV Standard

Business Times Africa: Migrating From Analogue To Digital TV

CNET: Nokia, Motorola to cooperate on mobile video

Radio-Electronics.com: What is Digital Video Broadcasting

Tech Watch: DVB tackles 3D transmission standards

New York Times: Mobile TV’s Last Frontier

Resources

DIBEG: Introduction of “ISBD-T”

ATSC: About Us

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