Digital TV: back to the future?

Digital TV: back to the future?

Summary: What a difference a decade makes.

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Digital TV

What a difference a decade makes.

Doing some much-needed sorting recently, I found a Bulletin magazine with a cover date of February 10, 1998 -- exactly ten years ago this week.

The fact that the Bulletin no longer exists was curious enough, as was rereading my story about a new fad called Internet shopping -- including statements like "commercial Australian Web sites are now seriously testing the waters of online shopping" and references to "Amazon.com, a US-based online bookstore with almost a million customers."

This particular issue, however, caught my attention because of the cover story on digital television. "Coming: pictures that leap off the screen," ran the headline, with two models sitting enthusiastically in front of a life-sized shot from then current-release blockbuster Titanic.

Rather than focusing on the wow factor, the writer voiced concerns about digital TV turf wars among government, media owners, Internet service providers and others. Pay TV operators feared that free-to-air (FTA) channels would use digital TV's more efficient spectrum usage to broaden their offerings. Rupert Murdoch was quoted as saying that "no one I know has a proven business plan that will generate one extra dime to help pay for all the expense [of the transition]."

Ten years later, digital TV is in around a third of Australian households, and Seven and Ten each offer high definition-only channels. Big-screen TVs are the order of the day, with the latest 1080p-capable units promising mind-blowing TV through services such as HD+, which Foxtel announced last week (ironic given the 1998 Bulletin story's quoting of then-chief executive Tom Mockridge as calling HDTV "a red herring.")

With pay operators luring viewers away from FTA, digital TV has become key to survival for the old operators; new HD channels and additional standard-definition channels will give us 15 FTA digital channels by 2009).

What I'd like to point out is the utter lack of urgency on this whole issue by the newly elected government.

In the leadup to last year's election, I interviewed Senator Helen Coonan on this topic. Among other actions, her tenure had seen the late-2006 creation of Digital Australia, a government body dedicated to co-ordinating stakeholders and educating consumers about digital TV.

Funded at AU$17m over four years, it was a concrete effort to finally bring about the end of analogue. I wouldn't have bet against an eventual subsidy program like that operating in the US, where residents are eligible for two US$40 coupons towards the price of digital boxes.

Senator Conroy declined repeated invitations to counter Senator Coonan's comments last year -- one of which, interestingly enough, was that Labor had been "totally absent in this space". I couldn't tell you what my opposition says about one iota of broadcasting; [Conroy] has never said anything at all, apart from that he's going to abolish Digital Australia."

True to his (and her) word, Digital Australia is no more. Senator Conroy moved quickly to appoint his own committee -- known as the Digital Switchover Taskforce (DST) -- to waste even more time considering options on ways in which it may be possible to eventually direct a well-considered policy for managing the seemingly critical rollout of what will, once the plan for its rollout is considered, become a critically important part of the esteemed Senator's plans to more effectively consider appropriate policy directions in this highly essential area of government telecommunications policy.

Pardon me. I seem to have lapsed into government-speak, saying much without actually saying anything. That's kind of what Conroy seems to be doing, as well: Rather than continuing whatever momentum the Coalition built, he is starting from the beginning again. One of his first actions was to delay the planned metropolitan switchover by a year, and to push the full cutoff back to 2013 -- fully five years after initial government estimates, and around two years later than Coonan was planning.

This, in Conroy's words, is to help an industry that he says "has been unable to plan effectively for digital television". Now, answer me this: ten years ago, the Bulletin was already lamenting the lack of government action on digital TV. A decade later, despite repeated efforts, we're still seeing deadlines pushed back again and again -- despite the fact that all FTA networks are all already broadcasting in digital TV and will be doing even more such broadcasting next year.

Perhaps it is actually the government that has been unable to plan effectively for digital television. Which begs the question, why?

Could it be that the 2013 deadline has been set six years after the last election to ensure the switchover doesn't become a contentious political issue until after Labor is safely into its third term? Given that we've all seen digital TV coming for half a generation, shouldn't we all be well past discussing the planning stages? Could we please just get on with it?

The technology is there; the willpower is there. What do you think is holding up the digital TV switchover? Do you really care about digital TV anyway? Will IPTV, PVRs and mobile video make the discussion irrelevant in the end?

Topics: Government, Government AU, Hardware

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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Talkback

5 comments
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  • Digital tv has problems

    You haven't mentioned in your article anything about the problems that digital tv has. It's much more susceptible to interference. It's easy to lose sound during a thunderstorm and a picture can be easily 'bent' just by switching on a light. Until those kinds of problems are ironed out digital tv isn't going to take off as well as some people would like.
    Putting back the analog switchoff time may enable more people to find out what's going on or it may enable broadcasters to seek a solution to these problems.
    More people are relying on the internet for their television / video entertainment. By 2013 there may be a better set up which will enable computer processing of digital transmissions to correct glitches caused by the weather et c.
    anonymous
  • Government subsidies for antenna reviews?

    You make a good point -- not everyone can get a good digital signal all the time, since the box is hostage to the existing antenna, wiring, etc. Perhaps the government's (theoretical) subsidy program should also include support for antenna specialists to check and optimise existing setups?

    Should we, as in the NextG-CDMA dispute, expect similar coverage from digital TV as from analogue?
    anonymous
  • It's not an antenna problem.

    I believe the real problem is in the digital technology : there are no checksums in digital tv transmissions therefore no way to correct errors.

    I have long believed that tv reception would improve by having multiple low power overlapping transmission areas : perhaps it is time for the government to reconsider options for local repeater transmitters similar to those used by mobile phones.
    anonymous
  • Sure does have problems

    When digital tv worksits great but there are still many people (myself included) who just don't get a decent signal. Being in one of the largest cities in Australia and purchasing a top of the line antenna including installation still leaves me with unwatchable tv about 30% of the time. Until the technology is improved or more broadcast towers are installed I think we are a long way off from being ready for analog to dissappear.
    anonymous
  • quarter power

    Digital TV has MUCH bigger range and interference rejection than analogue. It uses efficient transmission and plenty of error correction.

    Part of the reason why you're not seeing this is that it's transmitted at only quarter power. This is needed to prevent interference with analogue TV (which has no resistance, even if digital is on a distant channel).

    Still, I've recommended a cheap digital box to three households with serious reception problems and they were able to get 100% correct digital reception, using the same poor antenna which made analogue unwatchable.

    What the government should do RIGHT NOW is to boost digital signal to normal levels. Analogue users might suffer, but this will only convince them to switch. Digital users will see coverage which was beyond any reach they ever had.
    anonymous