Switching to Digital Television: A Bumpy Road For Sri Lanka?

Around the world, the technologies for TV content production, transmission and archiving are moving from analogue to digital. While satellite broadcasters went digital years ago, many terrestrial broadcasters are switching over during this decade. Some countries that started the digitalization process early have already completed it. This includes the United States, many countries in the European Union and Japan. Digital broadcasting offers broadcasters many advantages including more channels, lower operating costs and new business opportunities. At the same time, going digital also poses some policy, regulatory and technology challenges.

“Digital switch-over can only succeed if the costs for the government, the broadcasters and the viewers are kept low,” says the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN agency that helps countries to manage their spectrum for broadcasting and telecommunications.

Sri Lanka’s television industry has been preparing to digitalize itself for more than half a decade. But policy uncertainties have confused broadcasters and caused many delays. Will the new government make an evidence-based and transparent decision? At the time of writing (early October), we still don’t know.

TV Market
● TV broadcasting started in Sri Lanka with a single channel (ITN) in 1979. By 2015, it has expanded to 23 terrestrial channels owned by 16 broadcasting companies (of which, two are stateowned and the rest, private). In addition, there are cable TV services, direct-to-home satellite services and an Internet based (IPTV) one. Over 80% of households (around 4 million) have TV receivers. It is the most popular mass medium and number one source of public information.

In 2010, the Ministry of Mass Media and Information appointed a subcommittee “to propose a suitable policy framework for the digitalization of terrestrial television broadcasting in Sri Lanka”. The expert group, which included several engineers and TV industry veteran Dr D B Nihalsingha, finalized its report in late 2010.The 28-page report, titled The Policy Framework for the Digitalization of Terrestrial Television Broadcasting in Sri Lanka, opened with these words: “Digitalization of broadcasting is a mega-trend in the world, offering greatly enhanced picture and sound quality, value-added services and a wider choice of channels and programmes to the viewer, while maximizing the utilization of the precious bandwidth available to a country. Furthermore, there are consequences of not adopting digital television such as: obsolescence of analogue broadcasting infrastructure…and the non-availability of the digital dividend to Sri Lanka which opens up avenues for the introduction of advanced mobile telecommunication services to the country.”

The subcommittee recommended that Sri Lanka adopt the European originated DVB-T2 (Digital Video Broadcasting – Second Generation) as the standard for digital terrestrial television broadcasting, or DTTB.

That decision was based on two key considerations:
• DVB-T2 is a more advanced digital terrestrial transmission system offering higher efficiency, robustness and flexibility; and
•The high bit rate of DVBT2 makes it currently the only DTTB standard that can provide simulcast for all current analogue TV programmes in a limited frequency channel.

The report recommended introducing a new category of operator to centralize the delivery of content made by various broadcasters. To be called Digital Broadcast Network Operator (DBNO), its transmission facility will be linked to master control rooms (MCRs) of all broadcasters.

n3Early investments
● The report noted how the finite public property of the electromagnetic spectrum has not been well managed (by its custodian, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, TRCSL). It said: “The existing TV licensees have been assigned frequencies beyond the allocation recommended by ITU for TV transmission. Therefore the need arises to accommodate all of current licensees within the minimum number of DBNOs, implying that the programme channels per DBNO would be the maximum possible. This can only be achieved by DVB-T2. Furthermore, DVB-T2 has the capability to accommodate several high definition (HD) channels as well.”

This 2010 report also said that national broadcaster Rupavahini and satellite broadcaster Dialog TV had already begun investing in DVB-T transmitters based on a government decision in August 2009 to adopt this technical standard.

Some infrastructure investments also followed the report’s submission. In June 2011, President Rajapaksa opened the newly built Kokavil transmission tower in the Mullaitivu District in the north. Media reported that TRCSL had spent Rs330 million on the 174 metre high, multi-purpose tower. It was “equipped with digital radio and television transmission using the DVB-T2 digital terrestrial broadcasting standard” (Daily News, 6 June 2011).

dThe original timeline was for the digital transition to begin in 2011 and culminate in 2017 with the complete analogue switch off. During that interim period, no new licenses were to be issued for analogue TV broadcasting. The subcommittee recommended import tax concessions to help broadcasters acquire new equipment and some subsidy to help households buy new TV receivers.

ITU Technical Assistance
● In late 2011, ITU provided technical experts who worked with their Lankan counterparts to produce the Roadmap for the Transition from Analogue to Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting in Sri Lanka (ITU, Feb 2012). It was prepared in consultation with relevant government agencies and TV broadcasters.

The Roadmap recommended a minimum of eight (8) principal transmission sites based on the experience of current broadcasters and coverage simulation done by TRCSL. The probable locations were identified as: Yatiyantota, Karagahatenna, Kokavil, Numunukula, Gongala, Piduruthalagala, Hanthana and Colombo.

The Roadmap said, “Wherever possible, usage of existing infrastructure should be promoted through bilateral agreements between existing broadcasters/ government agencies and the DBNOs. If a second DBNO is to be licensed, it is mandatory to make the transmission infrastructure of the two DBNOs to be co-located in those identified sites. Therefore infrastructure should be able to accommodate a second DBNO to be co-located with the first one.

n2The Roadmap suggested a budget allocation of Rs2 billion for setting up the initial infrastructure, with the other site-dependent costs to be estimated later. “Once the total cost and the timeline is finalized it may be necessary for the government to seek/provide part funding in stages or full funding to set up the DBNO,” it said.

Sudden U-Turn
● After a lull of nearly three years, the (previous) government suddenly announced that it was going to adopt the Japanese DTTB standard known as ISDB-T. This both surprised and dismayed the broadcast community, some of who had already made investments in DVB-T2.

ISDB-T is used in Japan, the Philippines and some Latin American countries. In contrast, DVB-T and DVBT2 have been widely adopted in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and a large part of continental Asia and Africa (China and the US have their own standards).

Dr Charitha Herath, then Secretary to the Media Ministry, wrote in July 2014: “The Government aims to take dedicated efforts to achieve the complete digitisation of terrestrial television broadcasting, by adopting Japan’s Integrated Service Digital Broadcasting-Terrestrial (ISDB-T) standard, which is the best of such technology, with the aim of switching off the analogue broadcasting system by 2017.” He gave various technical reasons to justify the switch. Among them:
ISDB-T has a built-in “early warning system” though which all mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets can be accessed to send disaster warnings”. But others say that technologies like cell broadcasting already exist that can do the same, independent of TV transmissions. The probable reason emerged in September 2014, when the government signed a bilateral agreement with Japan for a loan of Yen 13,717 million (around LKR 17.4 billion at the time) through Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for TV digitalization. It coincided with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Sri Lanka. Some private broadcasters were deeply unhappy with the change, but their protests were guarded and subdued. They spoke out more freely only after the Rajapaksa government lost the Presidential Election in January.

However, the new government has not clarified whether they will proceed with the Japanese standard, or revert to the originally announced DVB-T2 standard. In mid 2015, the Media Ministry was still “trying to decide”.

nIt is a tough choice. Japan, the largest grant aid donor to Sri Lanka for a long time (that included the national television facility of Rupavahini), is aggressively promoting ISDB-T, especially with small countries. Japanese companies stand to gain much through sales and maintenance contracts.

On the other hand, most Lankan broadcasters favour the internationally widely adopted DVB-T2, for which some hardware investments are already made. The two standards are mutually exclusive.Whichever the standard, says Upali Arambewale, a former head of engineering at Rupavahini, the process of Analogue Switch-off (ASO) and Digital Switch-on (DSO) can take 8 to 10 years. During that period, our broadcasters will have to operate both analogue and digital channels until all consumers (households) are ready with digital TV receivers.

The analogue TV sets now in use cannot directly receive digital transmissions, but they can be customised through a Set-Top-Box (STB). “STB is the primary solution during initial stages of the transition period. It is very unlikely that the Smart TV receivers available in the Lankan market are compatible with ISDB-T standards as the ISDB-T TV receivers are not freely available in most parts of the Asia-Pacific region excluding Japan and most parts of the world,” Arambewale said in late 2014.

Consumer acceptance matters. In USA and Australia, for example, the original analogue termination dates had to be extended by three years due to the slower than expected consumer take up of new digital services. It could take longer in Sri Lanka.


ITU Report is online at:
https://www.itu.int/ITU-D/tech/digital_broadcasting/projectdbasiapacific/Roadmaps/db_asp_ roadmap_SriLanka.pdf