There is a great deal of hype around digital migration and all the wonderful things it offers. Guy Berger puts this into harsh, but realistic perspective.
I bet fewer South Africans know what BDM stands for, than the number who get BBMs.
BDM is short for broadcast digital migration. It’s part of the wider hoopla designed for the developed world.
It designates moving from analogue transmission of television signals to digital distribution. While SABC2, for instance, takes up a single frequency in analogue form, up to 24 channels can be squeezed on the same spectrum when you digitally encode the signal.
BDM makes a lot of sense for developed countries where there is broadcaster and telecommunication pressure to make more space on the airwaves. That’s why the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has decreed that the wastefulness of analogue television should come to an end in Europe.
The same decision applies to Africa; and due date is 2015 (although one-third of African countries have up to 2020). Not that the sky will fall if we fail to meet the deadlines. All that will happen is the ITU will no longer protect our analogue signals from cross-border interference.
Today, we’re unnecessarily walking into a very, very expensive BDM conversion. You are paying for it via your taxes and you will have to pay more because you need to buy a special set-top box (decoder).
This box will be essential to convert digital television signal ‘back into analogue’ to see it on your existing TV screen (unless you’re rich enough to get a television with a built-in digital receiver). For most people, the whole costly shebang is just to continue watching television.
“But,” say the apostles of BDM, “with the spectrum freed up, there will be a lot more TV channels on offer.” Oh really? SABC can barely keep its existing three channels going. There will be more pay-TV offerings from M-Net (maybe also from e.tv). For these, South Africans will have to buy another set-top box (and pay the subscription fees).
Setting aside the hype of a cornucopia of new channels (unless you want to count a likely influx of American televangelism), it is true that digital TV provides slightly better quality images. It also allows more capacity for subtitling (if broadcasters can afford to exploit this).
Are these genuine benefits? And at what cost? And think of alternatives that the same funds could be used for; such as support for community radio, subsidising public service television programming, and boosting the independent production sector for local content.
‘BDM-ism’ scepticism is not digital ludditism: the same funds could go into promoting internet access more broadly. “But,” I can hear the BDM lobby crow, “BDM will precisely free up airwaves for more wireless broadband”. Yay, the “digital dividend”.
No, not quite. Only when BDM is completed – after probably three years of (expensive) dual analogue and digital transmission – will the digital spectrum become available.
Here’s the biggest tragedy of this misguided resourcing of BDM: the design could so easily be tweaked to include an internet component immediately.
It’s as easy as prescribing a set-top box that will have:
(a) some decent memory and storage,
(b) a built-in modem or USB-plug in capacity,
(c) an open Application Programme Interface so that “apps” can be built to turn a dumb box into a smart device.
Despite government rhetoric that the boxes should have a ‘return path’, none of these features are on the cards for the basic device – on which most of the 12-million South African homes will be spending their money.
Nevertheless, imagine the potential if, say, SABC could broadcast Wikipedia at midnight every Sunday, the files get stored on the set-top box, and our schoolkids call them up for their homework on the Monday.
Imagine, too, how the box (aka computer) could be driven by a remote control that includes a keyboard (even one as basic as a cellphone). Link this box via 3G modem, and you have an email capacity in every TV home.
There’s even bigger potential. Because 3G internet is vulnerable to congestion, there’s scope for TV broadcasters to become internet service providers (or partner with them), so that internet uplinks come via a 3G modem in the box, but downloads get delivered via the digital broadcast stream (which has more bandwidth than the broadcasters can use).
Then, presto, you have a hybrid system that brings broadband on big screen to the home. Compare that to trying to stream YouTube on your cellphone.
Not least of all, an ‘internet-ised’ BDM could also open the way for a mass of user-generated content to enter into TV circulation.
Back to earth, government and broadcasters are trapped in a mindset of top-down, one-way content delivery.
BDM means tons of money spent on a digital dog’s breakfast – and a half-baked one at that.
Follow Professor Guy Berger on Twitter @guyberger