Japanese-Brazilian digital TV standard conquers South America

THE battle over digital TV standards continues raging on in other parts of the world as still-undecided countries make the switch from analogue to digital television. The year 2010 ends with most of South America using the same standard, and it´s not Europe´s.

Bad news for the DVB Project to end 2010 as yet another South American country has decided to go with the growing ISDB-T digital TV standard: Uruguay. Three years ago, the European group was trumpeting and congratulating itself with that country´s choice of DVB-T and DVB-H for its fixed and mobile Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) broadcasting. Now the government of the tiny but proud South American nation of Uruguay is joining its neighbours by embracing ISDB-Tb.

Clearly president Mujica wanted to put the country “in sync” with its neighbours. “The economics were taking into account, but the tipping point was geopolitics” said a secretary of the Presidency, Diego Cánepa. The European Union “lamented” the decision and in a short press note which said “an opportunity of collaboration has been lost.”

This humble scribbler anticipated back in 2007 with his crystal ball that ISDB-T could “conquer Latin America”, or else “fail miserably”, it was one or the other with no middle ground. Had it been restricted to Brazil alone, it would have been an epic failure due to the lack of economies of scale. Finally, it took longer than originally thought, but all the pieces have been falling into place and now ISDB-Tb is the standard of choice in South America, if not all the “Americas”.

DTT standards map

Wikipedia map showing DTT standards adoption. S.Africa still on the brink.

A brief intro on ISDB-Tb
Based on Japan´s original ISDB-T but improved with the addition of H.264 compression as a result of recommendations by Brazilian researchers and universities, ISDB-Tb had an edge specially because of its “one-Seg” feature which allows embedding a free-for-all low-res signal for mobile phones and netbooks along with the SD and HD-quality broadcast. One-seg proved to be a very enticing feature to democratise access to news and information in developing countries.

Three years ago the DVB group was buouyant about the prospects of DVB adoption throughout the region and a representative from the DVB group told this scribbler that our reporting on digital TV standards in South America favouring ISDB-T had “bias”.

Uruguay´s U-Turn
Back in October 2007, Leon Lev who was at the time head of Uruguay’s telecomms regulations body URSEC, told the Broadcaster magazine that choosing DVB was “timely, strategic, and puts Uruguay at the forefront of technology in the Americas”. Speaking to the same magazine, Rafael Inchausti, president of the National Association of Uruguayan Broadcasters (ANDEBU) didn´t share that view, labelling the government´s choice as “rushed”: “We think the rush might be due to conversations or negotiations that the Uruguayan state might have had with international organisations that support this system or the governments that promote this standard.”

Recently, they started regretting that choice as more countries lined up behind ISDB-T. Andrés Barbosa, an advisor for the Brazilian government, told about the situation two months ago: ” Since Uruguay adopted DVB, ´the Europeans have done absolutely nothing, they made promises and have not fulfilled them. This also happened in the rest of the world because they are in crisis”.

At that point, the Brazilian government offered the tiny South American country a series of loans and investment plans totalling around USD $60 million if Uruguay made the switch to the regional Japanese-Brazilian standard. The government of Uruguay finally caved in this week. Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Perú, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Paraguay one by one selected ISDB-Tb as the standard of choice during the last two years.

Across the pond
Just across the small pond from Uruguay, in Argentina digital DTT is finally starting to take off. While the country has one of the highest CATV penetration rates with more than one home out of two being subscribed to cable TV services, free over-the-air digital TV aims for the remaining viewers, until now stuck with a handful of analogue channels with spotty reception.

CRT HDTV tuning into 1080i ISDB-Tb broadcast

As part of its efforts to “democratise the media”, the Argentine government has given purchase orders of 1.2M STB units from three local manufacturers which it is distributing to low-income families which lack cable TV service. In addition, it has created four new public channels dealing with Music, Education -managed by the country´s Education Ministry, and which airs many BBC documentaries-, one with programming for children, and another to air Latin American and Argentine films 24/7 -this one in the hands of the country´s Film Institute that funds many of the locally produced films-.

The new public channels on DTT are in addition to a handful of private channels already being aired on digital, bringing the total to around 10 signals. The government is also making a significant investment to install transmission stations throughout the country linked by a fibre network or satellite -depending on the location-. This nationwide DTT network has already reached the capital cities of Tucumán and Cordoba provinces, and is under way to reach the rest of the country.

ISDB-Tb set top boxes were imported from China, and just before the World Cup were selling for an insane $200 greenbacks. In recent months, however, price of the high-end STBs went down to $120 (£130 quid, €150), and are being assembled locally. Low-end STBs without the interactivity middleware and imported from China are down to $75 (£48 quid, €56). Recently LCD TVs assembled locally started appearing which feature built-in ISDB-Tb tuners as well.

ISDB-Tb Set Top Box in Argentina

DVB between a rock and a hard place
In Latin America, DVB seems to be between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Colombia and Panama are two countries in Latin America which have selected the European standard. Mexico has predictably chosen the American ATSC, which makes sense given its economic assimilation by integration with the U.S. after NAFTA. Honduras is another ATSC holdout in Latin America, and it´s expected that the remaining Central American countries which are part of CAFTA trade agreement ties with the US of A will end up choosing ATSC. But the unexpected might still happen, as was Colombia´s decision to go with DVB despite its good ties with the US government and its commercial interests.

Next Battle: South Africa
Brazil wants to lobby for its standard to other continents as well. Across the (big) pond, the government of South Africa ends 2010 without a firm decision on its digital TV standard. And while the Brazilian government has been lobbying for ISDB-Tb, and the SA government has hinted that some of its members take a favourable view towards ISDB-Tb, many in the local press and the South African TV sector are firmly in the European DVB camp and see the South-American born standard with a mix of fear and contempt. Stay Tuned.