The second part of a two-part article by Jeremy Wall from our sister publication, Multimedia Futures.
The future of Digital Terrestrial TV – known as DTT – is about to be decided. Licenses for three commercial multiplexes, each made up of five to eight channels, are now up for grabs. The BBC gets one and has published its plans for digital services in Extending Choice in the Digital Age. They include plans for wide-screen simulcasts of BBC1 and 2, a new 24-hour news service and possible subscription services. ITV/Channel 4 have pressed for sufficient technical capacity as a second multiplex to allow for two new services in addition to their simulcasts. Channel Five, S4C and Gaelic have been offered spectrum within a third multiplex. The other program, data and interactive services offered in the remaining spectrum will be decided by the Independent Television Commission (ITC) in the next few weeks. Pitching groups are BDB – British Digital Broadcasting Ltd – the consortium brought together by British Sky Broadcasting Plc, Carlton Communications Plc and Granada Group Plc. It also has first shot at a number of new BBC subscription channels being developed in a joint venture with Flextech Plc, the US-owned programme group. Above all, it plans to show Sky Sports and Sky Movies and this would be attractive to homes which cannot, or do not want, a satellite dish on the roof. The underdog is Digital Television Network, DTN, owned by NTL Plc, the transmission company, which was acquired by International Cable Tel Inc.
Lord Hollick, chief executive of United News and Media Plc and special adviser to the UK Department of Trade and Industry, has taken United News into the consortium with a 30% stake. DTN claims to be the only chance for genuine competition. If you give it to BDB, says DTN, you are giving the multiplexes to the same old media gang and will get the same old programs. Some have expressed a view that BSkyB may feel a conflict of interest between satellite and terrestrial. Would BSkyB want to erode their satellite market by putting too much effort into the terrestrial market? DTT will be difficult to establish whoever wins. Two hundred-channel digital satellite and digital cable systems will be launched next spring, probably about six months before DTT. The danger is that the public, faced with three competing digital delivery systems, will do nothing and wait to see what happens. But it doesn’t have to be this way and it seems conforming standards are on the way. Technical issues of compatibility come down to the front end. Satellite, terrestrial and cable each have a different system of modulation. The smart card, any interfaces, the chip, and modems are common as are the components that the data stream is then passed onto – the MPEG-2 decoder, with some 16 bit DRAM, and the RF modulator. Bruce Randel from NTL explained: The reason for a different modulation is due to satellite signals being point-to-point and relatively simple and terrestrial signal’s more hostile environment due to ghosting and reflections. Of course it is possible to build in all three types of modulation but then the box would cost more. I think it is unlikely that boxes will carry all the three types of modulation, because the cost of these boxes is going to have been subsidized anyway, and companies will be looking for the most economical way of doing it. High street electronics retailer, Dixons, has expressed a strong interest in the integrated digital TV set incorporating digital terrestrial electronics with plug in satellite and cable modules at low cost, but this development is likely to come in after an initial set top box launch. BDB and DTN envisage add on modules for DTT set top boxes. BSkyB’s evidence to the National Heritage House of Commons Select Committee last December stated that their digital satellite specification would provide a port for a DTT sidecar. (The Electronic Program Guide will also be different on each box. But this is not so much of a barrier to a consumer and will allow companies to establish branding.) What it does raise is the question of what a channel is. If you can select what you want to watch at the flick of a button, based upon a encyclopedic television guide, then why not just make programs and forget the concept of a channel? Smart cards, or conditional access, so that the consumer can pay to watch, still look proprietary and BskyB is expected to use their own, and DTT is expected to do the same. This incompatibility, in the long run, will perhaps prevent the three groups from conforming. At the end of the day, the people who make programs want to get paid for them. As they are shown in different countries’ satellites, you would be able to view a program in Switzerland as easily as England. What has been postulated is a shared carriage of conditional access information in addition to their own so maintaining a common receiver and one smart card. This arena is up to the manufacturers and service providers. In terms of the Application Programming Interface (API), BSkyB is looking to procure this software from a supplier. Telewest has suggested that it wants to work with common APIs and conditional access. Although the atmosphere of greater interoperability is going on between satellite and terrestrial this does not translate to cable. A well-placed BSkyB source said: What provision does Telewest have for supporting satellite or for supporting terrestrial?
Add a sidecar
We have provision in our box to contact terrestrial via a module or connect cable and, as far as I’m aware, Telewest or any other cable operator has no such interface. Jim Slater of the Digital TV Group, which promotes open standards, explained: We would like to see a situation where all the systems were compatible. The problems are not primarily technical, they are primarily commerical. This view was shared by Amstrad managing director Anthony Sethill. He agreed it would make sense if the cable, terrestrial, and satellite companies competed on price, program and quality with one box that could receive all three. Howard Watson, Director of Network Services at Telewest, said they would welcome anything that would enable customers to buy a box from retailers and then choose where they get the service. The way envisaged is that you put a ‘sidecar’ onto a base box that could then cope with terrestrial or cable delivery, he said. We welcome a core box, it is just the reality of how quickly it can be put into place, said Mr Watson. Once TV manufacturers start to produce their built-in version of the box, the issue will become a more pressing one for manufacturers. Certainly, the commercial realities are likely to become more harsh once the ITC makes its decision.