Switching over to digital TV: what you need to know
The “digital switchover” is not a widely discussed topic in the Caribbean region. Most countries have not yet announced dates for beginning the transition, but there are important international deadlines that are fast approaching.
In Monday’s news roundup, one of the articles indicated that submissions were being made to the Jamaican government to approve 2015 as the transition year for the ‘digital switchover’. Additionally, a Digital Switchover Study will soon be performed to “review Jamaica’s readiness and carrying capacity for the switchover” (Source: Jamaican Observer).
For those who might not be aware, the term ‘digital switchover’ speaks to the transition process from analogue TV to digital TV. Analogue TV generally refers to traditional over-the- air programming for which an antenna is required to receive the signal. With regard to digital TV, audio and video signals are digitally processed and multiplexed and can transmitted via a number of media, such as, terrestrial over the air broadcast and via satellite.
Countries worldwide have been transitioning to digital TV transmissions since 2006, and 17 June 2015 has been agreed internationally as the date when the radio frequencies that have been allocated to analogue TV will be made available to other applications.
With 17 June 2015 just over three years away, most Caribbean countries might not yet have established a plan of action to manage their switchover from analogue to digital TV. This post will highlight some of the pros and cons of the switchover, plus other matters that should be considered in light of this looming deadline.
Some of the advantages of digital TV are:
- Quality picture and sound. Digital TV offers considerably better sound and picture quality than current analogue systems. It also allows transmission of High Definition TV (HDTV), which has been all the rage over the last few years, which again offers substantially higher viewing resolution than traditional analogue systems.
- Requires less bandwidth. One of the key driving forces behind the transition to digital TV is that its uses considerably less bandwidth than analogue systems. Hence, the frequencies that are freed up in the switchover to digital TV can be made available to other services and applications, thus also promoting efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum.
- More channels. With standard analogue systems, only a handful of channels can be received, but with digital TV, since its signals can be multiplexed, it is possible to offer a larger number of channels, which means a wider selection can be made available to consumers.
The article in the Jamaica Observer mentioned the “broad and enriched media experience that digital transmission brings” as a reason for the switchover, but there are number of disadvantages that frequently eventuate when moving to digital TV.
- Incompatibility with existing analogue TV equipment. Current analogue antennae/receivers and TVs cannot process digital TV signals. Hence at the very least, consumers would need an analogue-to-digital converter box, or alternatively, replacing their analogue TV with one that has a built-in digital tuner. Additionally, depending on the age of their antennae, they may also have to be replaced, in order to success receive digital transmissions.
- Expense to end-users. The inherent incompatibility between analogue and digital TV signals means that there are expenses that consumers will most likely have to bear to facilitate the switchover. In some countries, such as he US and UK, the government offered a subsidy to defray some of those expenses, However, that might be unlikely in the Caribbean, since most governments cannot afford to do so.
- Loss of signals. In circumstances where analogue signals are weak, it may still be possible to view the broadcast, granted the picture and sound quality might be poor. In the case of digital TV, a weak signal often results in a blank screen – the channel content cannot be viewed, period. Hence there may be significant portions of the population who had been able to receive analogue broadcasts, albeit of poor quality, who might not be able receive digital broadcasts, leading to some degree of marginalisation.
The above discussion on the pros and cons of digital TV has been done primarily from the consumer’s perspective. However, TV broadcast operators will be required to update their equipment, which are expenses that they may be required to bear almost exclusively. In having a transition period over a number of years, operators might be in a better position to manage those costs and upgrades.
Furthermore, recognising that fewer people may successfully receive digital broadcasts due to weak signal strengths when compared with analogue transmissions, suggests that the deployment of broadcast towers may need to be revisited. Additional broadcast towers might be necessary to improve coverage and digital signal reception, which would mean increased costs to operators.
On another note, consideration also ought to be given to managing the environmental waste that will likely occur during a digital switchover process. In keeping with our post, Where do our electronic devices go to die?, the average cathode ray tube (CRT) TV contains between 1 lb (0.45 kg) and 11 lbs (5 kg) of lead, and is known to be highly toxic to humans, animals and aquatic life. Hence, systems must be established to properly dispose of such hazardous materials and reduce the environmental impact.
Finally, it ought to be highlighted that due to the relatively short distances between neighbouring countries, especially in the Eastern Caribbean, a coordinated approach to the switchover is advisable to reduce the possibility of signal interference between countries. This matter may be even more important since French and Dutch dependencies may have already completed their digital switchovers (as per their parent countries), but their spectrum plans would be aligned to what obtains in Europe (ITU Region 1) rather than the Americas (ITU Region 2), which again reinforces the need for coordination and clear management of the digital switchover process.