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Free the signal

In the wake of an alleged TRP scam, it may be prudent for India to move in step with the world and remove the limitations that prohibit private participation in OTA TV broadcasting

Free the signal
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The United States is currently undergoing a huge change in terrestrial television broadcasting aka over-the-air (OTA) broadcasting or simply put antenna-based TV signal distribution and reception. Yes, the US still has antenna-based TV broadcasting. The broadcasting landscape is changing as the rollout of new ATSC 3.0 or 'Next-Gen TV', as it is being called, is already underway and will soon be available in 40 US 'television markets'. ATSC 3.0 is a new technical framework for how digital TV signals are created, broadcast, and received in America. It promises resolution from 4K HDR to a possibility of 8K HDR in future using just an antenna. Currently, such quality is offered by direct-to-home (DTH) and over-the-top (OTT) platforms. While DTH is satellite-based tech, OTT delivers content via an internet connection. ATSC 3.0 draws its name from the 'Advanced Television Systems Committee' for the USA, an organisation representing the American broadcast, broadcast equipment, motion picture, consumer electronics, computer, cable, satellite, and semiconductor industries. America began its shift from analogue to digital in 1996 with ATSC 1.0 and completed the process in the year 2006.

Digital transition

India has also been charting its path in the direction of moving from analogue to digital terrestrial transmission (DTT). However, unlike the US, India doesn't have such variety in OTA TV channels as the terrestrial signal is the sole prerogative of the state. Hence, Prasar Bharati, that runs the state-funded Doordarshan (DD) television and All India Radio (AIR) services, enjoys a monopoly in this sector. But DD did take an early lead on the introduction of DTT services as far back as the year 2000. Field trials for the introduction of DTT services were initiated with first-generation DTT transmitters using digital video broadcasting terrestrial (DVB-T) technology. They were installed in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. But in the absence of the required enabling eco-system, this service could not be developed and the early opportunity for digital migration suffered a deceleration.

Industry participation must

In America, OTA television has grown over the last eight years by nearly 50 per cent. Nielsen estimates that about 14 per cent of Americans have moved to free-to-air (FTA) OTA channels. In Europe, the United Kingdom is one of the most active DTT markets. According to a survey by BARB, in the first quarter of 2020 UK alone had 17.28 million households watching digital OTA channels.

What is clear at the very first glance is that all these services, cable TV, IPTV, OTT and DTH that are open to private players have done well in India also. And the growth in these services is purely demand-driven.

India witnessed a spurt in TV digitisation with the introduction of cable and satellite TV services. Direct broadcast satellite services started in the year 2003 and IPTV services in the year 2008. In 2009, the Government of India laid down a regulatory framework for headend-in-the-sky (HITS) services which permitted the use of satellites for distribution of digital cable TV signal to last-mile operators. Later in 2012, the cable TV services digitisation process was rolled out. And lately, the OTT platform has also shown great promise in India. All these sectors have registered a consistent growth in terms of subscribers and related industry.

Meanwhile DTT, despite getting a kick start as early as the year 2000, has been languishing way behind. This is primarily because the absence of open competition has not only limited the availability of content as well as technology. With the advent of the new-age, DTT is well worth giving a serious thought again.

Private participation

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has in the past recommended that terrestrial television broadcasting should be allowed in the private sector also. The statutory body set up for regulating the telecommunications sector in India had examined the issue in the year 2005 on the request of the government. In its recommendations TRAI opined that "Private television channels are already extensively available through cable and satellite, it is considered that there should not be any bar on throwing open terrestrial broadcasting to the private sector." It further said that "In a market with high cable and satellite penetration, this option should be left to the market to decide."

Yet again on January 31, 2017, TRAI issued another set of recommendations in this regard. The recommendations were the result of a 'suo-moto' consultation paper with views from various stakeholders. The Authority recommended the introduction of DTT services throughout the country to be completed by the year 2023. And more importantly, it opined that private players should be permitted to provide DTT services along with the public service broadcaster. It was also highlighted that the earlier attempt to implement DTT could not succeed because the required ecosystem could not be created.

The national broadcaster picked up pace in recent years on DTT using an upgraded DVB-T2 standard. Doordarshan DTT service is now available in nineteen cities, sixteen of them up and running, yet in India, the ecosystem for the real proliferation of DTT is missing.

Meanwhile, Doordarshan also tends to agree that eventually private players have to be brought in some way or other, stemming from the obvious fact that without an open competitive market, subscribers are unlikely to get good options and better service.

Social aspect

Currently, popular high-quality TV content delivery cable TV, DTH, IPTV or OTT have capacity limitations as they are either cable-based or require internet data transfer. Additionally, there is a cost involved to the delivery platform. Assuming that a subscriber watches videos (data rate of 1.4 Mbps HDTV) for one hour daily, the monthly data consumption for watching such video will be about 20 GB which has a cost. Now, this increases as the watch time increases. Also, the higher number of subscribers in an area requirement for higher bandwidth is inevitable.

However, TRAI observed that the DTT platform has the potential to offer capacity for providing "Community TV" services to a local population on the lines of community FM services. An OTA DTT bouquet may be an effective alternate distribution platform to the rural masses and economically weaker sections of the society for accessing a variety of digital infotainment services without any recurring costs.

Some new technological innovations in DTT also allow it to broadcast area-specific content which can help give out targeted region relevant information in case of a natural calamity or any other emergencies. Of course, this feature can also be used by broadcasters for airing 'Target Advertising' in normal times but a subscriber would possibly also have the option of seeking 'Ad Free' content, which may come at a cost.

Impact on TRP

The DTT technologies allow two-way communication between the receiving device and broadcasting source virtually eliminating the need for human intervention in the user information gathering process. The need for a third-party service like Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) in its current format will also not be necessary. The channels/TV station will be able to collate their data on viewership. Of course, a body may be considered to occasionally check the audience data being offered by various broadcasters to sponsors but it will be more like a watchdog role and not a service provider one.

India's options

Today the country has quite a few options including the more popular DVB T/DVB-T2 Standard already implemented in India. DVB was developed by the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) Group formed by the European broadcast industry. India along with more than 160 countries is currently using DVB T2 standards. The other standard is ATSC 3.0, currently in use in the US. It is developed by the Advanced Television System Committee (ATSC) a group of American industries.

Then there is Integrated Service Digital Broadcasting Terrestrial International (ISDB-T International) developed in Brazil. The earlier version ISDB-T was standardised in Japan for multimedia broadcasting services. There is also the Chinese model Digital Terrestrial Multimedia Broadcasting (DTMB). Ratified in 2006 it became the mandatory national standard in 2007.

Considering the size of the Indian TV market, the country should have developed its own terrestrial signal standards long ago. But the absence of industry participation in the field has kept the innovation and investment muted. Now that around Rs 400 crore of public money has been already invested in DVB-T2 technology by Prasar Bharati exposing Indian markets to the world of DTT, it is time to let the industry, at large, pitch in with investment and competition for the best results. And in the time to come, India shall also develop Indian Signal Standards based on current experience and requirements suited for the local environment.

Views expressed are personal

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