Monday, 18 March 2013

Digital TV Summit Day One...

The inaugural Digital TV Summit of South Africa takes place this week in Bryanston, Johannesburg. I registered almost immediately on receiving the invite back in 2012, since one of the key speakers was to be Collins Khumalo, CEO of Multichoice South Africa. I was looking forward to seeing Collins in action, as my way of assessing how Multichoice contributes to the wider cause of Digital TV in South Africa. Unfortunately, the agenda was changed last minute, some key speakers, including Collins couldn't make it. I was also interested in networking to get an idea of the landscape of this market in South Africa/Africa...

Anyway, I am still attending the conference and will share what I've learnt from the presentations, on this blog - starting with Day One, which gently introduced the conference as being biased towards the topic of Digital Migration / DTT (Digital Terrestrial Transmission) as being one of the biggest event, if not, the biggest event to happen to the TV Broadcast Industry since its inception back in 1974...

Day One covered the following (Click on the links to jump to the topic):
Digital broadcasting trends in Sub-Saharan Africa
by Thecla MBongue, Senior Research Analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media Group
Presentation covered:
  • Market size, key players and key markets
  • Digital Switch-Over status
  • Growth drivers
  • Forecasts
Thecla presented a decent overview of the overall landscape of Digital TV in Africa, making references to the status compared with the rest of the world, primarily Europe. What is interesting is that current market research shows that Africa has only achieved a 25% penetration of households across Africa that own at least one (1) TV set, let alone households that have made the move to Digital TV. Another interesting development is that it is predicted that most people will experience their first introduction to TV on a platform other than the traditional TV set, with the growth of mobile phones & other mobile devices far outpacing the growth / uptake of TV sets. Africa has many challenges to deal with apart from technology, primarily the socio-economic factors where the majority of the population are below middle-class. TV, is seen as a luxury item in many parts of Africa.

In the countries that do have a size-able middle class, and where TV operators have entered markets, Thecla provided some nice looking pie charts that described the picture quite well. It was clear that in South Africa, and Sub-Saharan countries, that Multichoice is by far the dominant player. In rest of Africa, Canalsat is increasing its presence, with StarTimes (a Chinese outfit collaborating in partnership with many African Governments) is posing a big threat to Multichoice's DSTV, particularly in Nigeria. StarTimes and Zuku show up as competitors of DStv in Kenya with Zuku offering both Satellite DTH and Cable systems. French-speaking African countries are however dominated by CanalSat.

In terms of opportunities, research suggests that focus on locally-produced content is what will drive adoption in the African market. People seek out local productions that promote local/cultural identity and have little patience for international (western content). Again, Multichoice showed up tops as an Operator producing local content, to the extent for dedicated specialised channels. An analogy was made that Brazil for instance, considered a developing nation just like other African countries, base their content breakdown largely on local content, to the extent that local productions account for 90% of its overall content.

Forecasting also touched on innovation topics, again Multichoice being mentioned as one of the key enablers of innovation, citing the Drifta (latest incarnation is Walka) device and the recent PushVOD BoxOffice service, which according to the research dated March 2012, had seen the order of 300 000 Box Office purchases a month. She touched on other innovations like OTT services from Roku, and additional packages being added to overseas broadcasters for emigrants interested in local content, like CanalSat's Africa package for EUR 6.99 a month, Sky's On-Demand service offering Nollywood as well...

In terms of the challenges for the digital switchover, most if not all African countries are under prepared for the migration. The message was that to learn from other migration projects, such as the UK Digital Switchover, which took a period of Eight (8) years to switchover completely to DTT. Thecla remained sceptical that South Africa would achieve its migration targets, highlighting a few challenges with the current processes, particularly around the slow-turnaround times and long-running decision-making process...this led us nicely into the next session which was a free forum discussion on DTT SwitchOver...

DTT Migration Open Discussion
by Gelfand Kausiyo, CEO TurboWorx (Conference Chairman)
We had a free form discussion on DTT in lieu of presentations from ICASA who's delegates were unable to attend. This discussion was facilitated by the conference chairman:

Q: What is the general feeling around DTT in South Africa?
Q: Do you think DTT migration will complete as planned for 2015?
The people from SABC camp confirmed in the affirmative that currently they believe the deadline can still be met.
A response from DiviTech delegate who are involved in the Set Top Box (STB) area felt the current plan isn't realistic because the migration process hasn't even started yet. From the progress made in the early proof-of-concept demonstration back in 2008, there has been no real movement.

Q: Chairman had the privilege of reviewing the original migration plan. In fact, the ITU at the time did award South Africa for having the most comprehensive DTT migration plan, SA won first or second place. Were STB manufacturers involved in the planning or review process?
Response in the room was yes, the STB guys were involved but don't feel enough is being done to address the wider challenges of the migration, migration is not just about rolling out the technical infrastructure. Decision on STB specifications is still pending SABC response.

A representative from Namibia Broadcasting Corporation shared his perspective on the challenges of DTT Migration, that the plan really depends on the model for switch over. The first model being the Retail Model where the consumer just walks in to the shop & purchases from any retailer. From experience, this model may likely take up to 18 months to mature, until people get used to the idea, etc. The second model is that of a Forced Migration, where a central body takes responsibility and ownership, of procuring the STBs and making them available to retail - he believes this model could get you there faster, although 2015 is still quite an ambitious target. Namibia is planning the last transmitter switch for 2016.

The challenge with this switch over initiative, although being led though a government body, is that it is still seen as a technically driven, information & communications technology project. Therefore such projects, like any other technical project, takes lower priority in light of the other socio-economic responsibilities governments need to address. There was consensus that the impact on the consumer should not be overlooked, and it's quite obvious there is no clear plan to address the impact on the consumer, in terms of communications outreach programs, education, etc.

I also wanted to highlight (but chose not to) a concern I'd had back when the UK started its migration plan, although it wasn't much of a big problem there than in Africa - and this is the problem of illiteracy. Digital TV brings with it a complicated user experience, user interface, multiple channels and an alien like way of interacting with the TV. For people who have difficulty reading, these DTT STBs will take some getting used to, they're not the most accessible or user-friendly devices. In the UK switchover, there was a specific drive targeted at pensioners and disabled - to make the transition as pain-free and inexpensive as possible...

Looking at IPTV and its future in Africa
by Gelfand Kausiyo, Chief Executive Officer, Turbo Worx
Presentation covered:
  • Understanding the role of infrastructure in distributing IPTV services throughout Africa & beyond
  • Is IPTV in Africa enjoying the same market share as similar services in Europe?
  • Examining the key challenges associated with introducing IPTV into the African market
Gelfand presented his research and perspectives on the topic of IPTV, opening by posing the question about the reality of the status that popular companies like MTN, Telkom, MWeb and Vodacom have laid claims to supporting, or being on the cuff of realising IPTV in South Africa. Does MTN really think they can launch a decent, affordable IPTV service this side of 2013?? Does Telkom really think they can say with confidence they've launched in March 2013 with 20Mbps & 40Mbps IPTV service?? And don't get started on the Vodacom WebBox - can it really do IPTV??

Gelfand's definition of IPTV draws a clear distinction with that of "Internet TV". Internet TV is about using the open internet, which is uncontrolled, ungoverned and cannot guarantee a quality of service that is constant and always available. IPTV however, is about using the IP protocol in transmitting video data through IP packets, in a closed network where quality of service is always guaranteed, or reasonably assumed to be always present. IPTV, unlike traditional TV is about the user deciding what to watch by clicking on a link to enable the content...

[Aside: Personally I think Gelfand can do more research into his definitions of the term, I found Wes Simpson & Howard Greenfield's book IPTV and Internet Video: Expanding the Reach of Television Broadcasting (NAB Executive Technology Briefings)on IPTV and Internet Video does a good job of defining the various aspects of IPTV].

The presentation showed the classic comparison of African countries versus the likes of European countries, where in Europe the cost of broadband/internet is as cheap as chips, where for under EUR 10, under R100, people can get unlimited access to downloads, gigabytes of data uncapped, at least 20Mbps download speeds, on top of that, enough sustainable levels of quality to support triple play services. Consumers in Europe not only get one single entity of TV over IP, but they get voice & telephony as well, sometimes for free. Cross-check the cost of internet access with the rest of Africa, and thus it is immediately obvious that cost will be a major contributing factor to the adoption of IPTV in Africa.

Gelfand makes the point that lack of installed infrastructure, in particular fixed line/cable/fibre-to-the-home places Africans at a natural disadvantage to that of developed countries like the UK. So the only option, and the likelihood based on usage, is that people will most likely experience TV on mobile-like devices; moreover, the infrastructure that will make most sense for Africans is that of Mobile Broadband, not xDSL or Cable or Fibre. He also touched on the well known issue & problem of the last mile, and later through discussions with the group touched on how the UK was different with its local loop unbundling approach, which is non-existent in SA...

Having laid the foundation for his preferred broadband infrastructure of choice to be Mobile Broadband, he then shared further light on the costs likely to be incurred if we went that route. By comparing each country in the core regions of Africa, starting with South Africa: If a person were to view 20GB of content via mobile broadband, a person is SA would have to fork out $376 US Dollars, Zambia $146, and so on....the point being, it is a ludicrous, expensive and unsustainable price-point. Further to this, is that mobile broadband is really difficult to implement quality of service levels that is always guaranteed. When it comes to watching TV, people are used to smooth viewing, no interruptions and will be impatient on waiting for the buffer to fill up, or download to complete before watching TV... Using this price point, compared to France that offers triple play for $45 & in USA services as much as $100/month...

Cost of broadband is absurd in Africa!

In South Africa, the broadband penetration is low - 15% of SA households have a broadband connection. Most Africans experience the internet through the use of mobile phones. Broadband mobile phones/devices will be people's first experience of TV, not your traditional TV set. Mobile broadband (4G/LTE) is ramping up, but has teething problems currently unable to deliver quality of service to sustain decent levels of TV, mobile operators are waiting on spectrum to be freed up for LTE, waiting on the digital switchover - all things lead to the Digital DTT Migration it seems...

Morocco seems to be the leading country in Africa implementing IPTV. Other players in Africa dealing in IPTV space is Infinity Satellite Communications and My Ontario Telecom...

Time will tell, we have to wait and see what the likes of MTN will really deliver in this space...

Sentech's DTT Migration Update
by Tebogo Leshope, Head: Network Engineering, Sentech
Presentation covered:
  • Looking at infrastructure needed for digital transmission and financial investment required
  • Examining Sentech's strategy for ensuring timely roll-out of equipment & skills to meet deadline
  • Understanding the importance of maintaining the infrastructure going forward
Tebogo presented the project's state-of-the-art and overview of progress to date. I quite enjoyed this presentation as it was a topic I could relate to, as an engineer and manager of Digital TV Headend Systems. No doubt, this is a complicated project, not to mention a costly one. If I heard correctly, current spend on the project has amounted to R1.3 billion to date, with a further R150 million reserved for this year. Sentech is a state-owned entity that provides broadcast infrastructure for the country, as well as some IP connectivity solutions to government departments.

With the Digital Migraton, VHF band is set to expire in 2015, and UHF expires in 2020. So there is a big drive to get the system delivered in time for 2015. These guys are positive the deadline can be met from a broadcast/infrastructure side, considering that as of today, they've setup sites covering 70% of the country, and aiming for 80% coverage by March 2013 (two weeks time), climbing up to 88% by March 2014, leaving a gap of 12% that will be covered by alternate means such as DTH connectivity. Overall there was a sense of confidence the roll-out plan was on track...

The broadcast system chose in DVB-T2 as it provides additional capacity of the original DVB-T standard. With this, they plan to support two multiplexes. The first multiplex is dedicated to state broadcast & community channels (in total about 20), where the share is split as 85% state & 15% community respectively. The second multiplex is shared with e-TV(?) and other PayTV (Multichoice?) with a 65-35% split (I need to double check this).

Sentech has 240 sites across the country, with 14 operational centres located nationally. The plan is to expand these operational centres with additional responsibility of customer-support services. Customer-care support is anticipated because the move to DTT is a complicated system, for example: people will have an additional STB/decoder, two remote controls, EPG user interface, additional arial, etc. - so they expect to have operational support centres in place to deal with customer queries.

Tebogo touched on the architectural complexities of the system, especially highlighting the interfaces with third party systems. For example, PayTV operators will have to send content and EPG data for multiplexing with Sentech's system. Sentech's system is essentially the gateway, or aggregator that not only has to mediate state/SABC's content & data, but also the likes of Subscription PayTV operators. There are plans to implement a Network Monitoring System, which is currently in progress, with some risk - these are complicated technologies.

On the plan is also the subject of installing a Disaster Recovery System - full redundancy and failover is expected as a natural feature in the world of digital TV, unlike the analog days where if one channel fails, you would still have three other channels to fall back to. In Digital TV system, if one multiplex goes down, you lose all your channels. It seems work on this disaster recovery system has started, but I couldn't tell if it was on track or not...

People shared concerns around piracy and weak encryption - alluding to the use of cheap decoders from China being able to access SA content from outside of South Africa. Tebogo mentioned that there were plans to improve the encryption but wouldn't disclose further details because of the sensitivity of the topic and the right to confidential information...

All in all, the guys at Sentech have their work cut-out for them. They seem confident however, from the headend roll-out they are on track for 2015. Being someone who's managed Digital TV projects before, I think the timelines are really tight, they shouldn't count on 2015 - 2015 is the deadline for migration to complete - hence, the headend/infrastructure should've been done already. Taking the phased approach, of province-by-province as they've planned, you then start with iterative systems integration with the set top box. The STB, I believe doesn't exist yet - and to me - that seems like quite a large risk to be left open, unresolved till the end. A STB can take anywhere between 6-12 months to stabilize...but this is just my two cents opinion from the sidelines.

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