Heavy bandwidth constraints are crippling digital terrestrial broadcasters and imposing barriers to their future HDTV offering. This could result in just 7% penetration of high definition digital terrestrial television (HD-DTT) in the UK by 2012, with a similar scenario playing out across Europe, according to a new broadcast tracking and analysis service from Understanding & Solutions.
The report claims that, while many consumers are still confused about high definition, the message is starting to get through and, in Europe, nearly 80 channels provide at least some HD content with most satellite, many cable and even a number of IPTV platforms now carrying HD, with some operators offering up to 15 channels. The report authors argue that the future for HD-DTT may be 'bleak', placing public service broadcasting at a disadvantage and creating a viewing hierarchy of 'haves' and 'have-nots'.
"Improvements in compression technologies like MPEG-4 AVC are making HD-DTT solutions a possibility," says Graeme Packman, Principal Consultant at Understanding & Solutions, "although only with a very limited number of channels. Further technological development will help breach the bottleneck, but it's a slow process requiring considerable international coordination."
According to the report, the UK is currently taking the lead in addressing some of these issues and has two separate sets of proposals. The first is a formal proposal backed by the UK regulator Ofcom, and is going through a structured evaluation process. The second route is an ambitious set of proposals put forward in an independent expert industry group report to the DVB standards group and the DTG, which could result in 40 HD-DTT channels becoming available. This would certainly give the terrestrial platform critical mass as a HD source, and a fighting chance against satellite and cable.
"Implementation of the more radical of these proposals could require the amendment of currently agreed spectrum allocations," continues Packman, "which will mean the rapid obsolescence of broadcasters' investment plans for digital transition. However, it would lead to more frequencies being handed back and potentially a greater opportunity for the government to raise money.
"To make this happen, two of the 14 frequencies due to be handed back at ASO need to be retained with a view to handing back up to ten more frequencies in the future."
Implementation of the plans may also require modification of the transmission systems already being implemented, which have seen the investment of hundreds of millions of pounds by UK broadcasters. Needless to say, this is not very appealing to them, and gaining their support may be difficult, if not impossible.
Although much of the development work for both proposals has been done for the UK market, the intention is that they could be applied internationally to maximise terrestrial spectrum efficiency across Europe and elsewhere. However, there's the risk of division in the implementation of HD-DTT across Europe: an unwelcome situation for equipment and component manufacturers who are looking to true pan-European products.
"To compound the problem, most countries are already well down the track of implementing the transition to DTT," says Packman, "with considerable investment by broadcasters, transmission companies and other interested parties. It will be very difficult for these organisations to change track and write off money that has already been drawn down."
DTG Staff | 22.04.2008