Jul 03 2014

World Cup and the digital switchover

Published by at 1:51 pm under Articles,Jordan

Following appeared in the Jordan Times Newspaper

If all goes as planned, this could be the last World Cup that the general public in most Arab countries, including Jordan and Palestine, will not be able to watch for free.

According to FIFA laws and regulations, TV broadcasting of the game should not be monopolised by any country, but the Arab region is the exception to the rule.

The near absence of any Jordanians terrestrial TV broadcasting has played into the hands of the oil-rich Gulf countries that paid exorbitant licence fees for the satellite broadcast of this season’s World Cup (as well as the last).

As reportedly 96 per cent of Jordanians watch satellite stations, a warped television culture has developed.

Hundreds (some say thousands) of stations are available free to air in the Arab region, despite the fact that most of them are broadcasting what amounts to inferior programming.

Whether a country or a movement, to exist politically in the Arab world one has to be on satellite.

The little box in the corner of the TV screen bearing one’s name or logo has become the sign of political existence, irrespective of the fact that someone watches that station or not.

All this could change in the next year or so if the planned switchover to terrestrial digital broadcasting is implemented properly.

Digital broadcasting not only provides regulators with tens of newly available stations (both nationwide and local) at higher quality and lower upload costs, it also gives end users many benefits, including recording, replaying and listening to broadcasts in different languages or subtitles for those with difficulty hearing.

In 2006, the International Telecommunications Union, the world oldest international agency, set June 2015 as the deadline for 116 African and Asian countries (including all Arab countries) to switch from analogue broadcasting to digital.

Europe made the switchover around 2005-6. On a single day, June 17, 2015, most regional countries, including Jordan, will turn off analogue broadcasting and switch over to digital.

Most new TV sets are equipped with digital receivers, but households that still have the old analogue TV sets will need a switchover box.

In most countries, governments, which are set to make millions making the UHF and VHF frequencies available for cell phone services, provide coupons for the public to buy the needed box.

The challenge for Jordan, Palestine and other countries is not just how to provide the box, but also how to regulate the new spectrum which has many more channels of better quality (including HD) at a fraction of what stations are paying now to broadcast on satellite.

This is a perfect example of the saying “Content is king”. If local content (such as local news, sports and services) are available on TV, the public will quickly migrate to it.

To succeed with the digital broadcasting switchover, countries must invest in hardware as well as software.

Not only do nations have to build towers and transmitters that will broadcast digitally, they also must regulate the newly available spectrum in such a way as to encourage entrepreneurs and community organisers to jump on the bandwagon.

Countries must refrain from charging high licence fees for broadcasting, lower bureaucracy and encourage community broadcasting through various incentives, including subsidising locally produced and locally targeted programming.

Public access and community broadcasting are often ignored in the frenzy for commercial television. This is a mistake.

All elements of society need to work hard and in a collaborative way to make this switchover a success.

Public and private sector, regulators, legislatures, NGOs, technical experts and community leaders must all be involved in setting such a national strategy.

A workshop attended by high-level public and private sector officials held at the Dead Sea recently attempted to begin the discussion on how to deal with the challenges of switching to digital.

The workshop, however, revealed how little even senior officials know about the issue and its challenges, and how far behind Jordan is in dealing with the complexities of these challenges.

So, how does all this technical issue affect the ability of the average Jordanian or Palestinian to watch the World Cup at home without paying JD280 for a subscription to the Qatari BeIN Pay TV service?

One of the major advantages of going digital is in being able to save money on satellite upload costs.

At present, stations pay an exorbitant $25,000 a month just for the cost of the upload and rent of satellite space. But to give up satellite broadcasting and, more importantly, to convince Jordanians to watch one’s station on terrestrial digital, broadcasters need to provide attractive local material.

Some of this material will become cheaper to purchase.

Buying the rights to broadcast the World Cup for a city or for all of Jordan will be much cheaper next season because the broadcast will be limited.

The same will apply when local broadcasters buy films and soap operas. But this will not be enough. National and local stations will need to provide local material, produce local news and local programming that will attract enough audience to reinstall antennas and be able to receive digital broadcasting.

This could be a great entry point for decentralisation procedure and targeted development  strategies.

Except for the antenna (and switchover box for the old TV sets) consumers will be able to watch digital channels on the same TV.

They can still watch satellite, but in order to wean away from satellite, content of these potentially new stations must be attractive and address local needs.

This will not be easy or cheap. That is why the entire country must come together and design a plan that will include financial incentives as well as simplified regulations so that entrepreneurs as well as community leaders agree to apply for licences of national and local TV stations.

Digital broadcasting in Jordan provides an opportunity for decentralisation and implanting many national plans.

The question remains whether Jordan and other countries in the region are up to this difficult challenge, which goes much beyond being able to watch the next World Cup without paying hundreds of dinars.

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