S'pore kickstarts HDTV trials

Trials conducted by broadcasters in the island-state will involve 2,000 households, and help gauge viewer response of high-definition television services.

SINGAPORE--The island-state will commence high-definition television (HDTV) trials from next month, marking the start of its bid to become Asia's media hub.

Singapore is the first nation in Southeast Asia to transmit TV programs in HDTV format and it will do so with the World Cup football tournament, next month. Two broadcasters, MediaCorp and cable service provider StarHub, will be conducting their own trials.

High-definition television programs offer up to five times the image resolution of conventional analog broadcasts. This means that viewers can expect sharper and more vivid images, complete with multi-channel surround sound.

As Singapore begins its foray into HDTV, Japan and Korea are the only two Asian countries that have already begun broadcasting in that format commercially. Japan's NHK has transmitted programs in high-definition since the early 90s, while South Korea did so last year.

According to Christopher Chia, CEO of Singapore's Media Development Authority, the island-state is also in talks with NHK to tap the expertise of the Japanese broadcaster.

"NHK is known to be one of the pioneers in HDTV," Chia said, noting that the Japanese company has been well-versed in HDTV technology for the past 20 years. "In the labs of NHK, you'll see [HDTV technology] that's even better than what you have today," he said.

Chia noted that MDA's discussions with NHK so far have concentrated on content and technology development, but he declined to reveal specific details.

As part of Singapore's HDTV trials, football fans in the island-state will be the first in the region to catch all 64 World Cup matches on StarHub's two HDTV cable channels.

While the cable operator is providing trial participants with HDTV set-top boxes, viewers will need to own HDTV sets. Yeo Chun Cheng, chief information officer of MDA, estimates that there are about 200,000 to 300,000 HDTV set owners in Singapore.

According to Yong Lum Sung, chief operating officer of StarHub, trial participants can continue to enjoy high-definition programs in genres such as documentary and entertainment, after the World Cup season has ended. He added that StarHub is expected to begin offering commercial HDTV services by year-end.

Yong said 1,000 StarHub customers who have subscribed to the company's digital cable and pay-per-view World Cup services, will be chosen to participate in the trial.

Similarly, MediaCorp will be providing some 1,000 selected households with set-top boxes to receive over-the-air HDTV broadcasts. The six-month trial will start from Jun. 18 this year.

In addition, MediaCorp will be installing HDTV sets at public areas such as libraries and community centers. The aim is to gather feedback from the general public on HDTV programs, said the broadcaster's deputy group CEO Chang Long Jong.

"The trial will allow us to get a better idea of the technical challenges that we need to address [with HDTV]," Chang said. "We also have to determine viewer expectations, such as whether they are prepared to pay for certain high-definition content."

MediaCorp is also hoping to expand its footprint in China with its staple of high definition content, he said, noting that "a couple of our Chinese dramas" are already available in HD format.

"China is one big market, and we expect the demand for HD content there to grow tremendously in the next few years," he added.

HDTV will be introduced in China for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which MDA's Chia said would give HDTV adoption in Asia a massive boost.