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Timeline set for digital switchover; Broadcasting Commission, media group disagree on pace

Published:Sunday | November 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Mark Titus, Business Reporter

The Government regulator of broadcasting in Jamaica is pushing to have television and radio broadcasting entities go fully digital by 2015. But while the various firms are at different stages of readiness - with one having entered the market with full digital service - the umbrella media lobby group, citing the expense involved, says five years is too quick a pace for mandatory switchover.

The Broadcasting Commission said the 2015 date was agreed at a November 2 meeting of the National Steering Committee on Digital Switchover (DSO).

The committee comprises the commission, government officials, cable television and radio-broadcasting firms, consumer affairs, and representatives of persons with disabilities.

"This is a process on which Jamaica has now fully embarked," said Dr Hopeton Dunn, chairman of the Broadcasting Commission.

"We are talking here about transitioning from old analogue equipment to digital equipment, and that needs to be done through all the stages of technical-information delivery," he said.

It is the wide scope of work and the heavy costs involved in the switchover process that is making the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) worried.

President of the association and managing director of the RJR Communications Group, Gary Allen, has expressed surprise at what he sees as the definitive nature of the DSO announcement made by the regulator.

"I don't think the sector is at that place where that can be the position that we agree to. It will be hugely expensive," Allen told Sunday Business.

The MAJ's position is that there are significant and far-reaching implications with which the broadcasting industry and government regulators have not yet fully come to terms.

"It is pushing too heavily in a direction, the implications of which have not been fully thought out and provided for," the MAJ head said.

"It is among a slew of things that have been put forward recently that are all signalling that being in the media business now is becoming life threatening to your financial business, because the level, extent, and cost of change being proposed are unbelievably ridiculous."

Allen said that while the RJR group had changed most of its production facilities to digital, the company was staring at a cost of up to US$300,000 to make the necessary changes to each of its 16 transmission sites across the island.

"This can never be done in the time specified when they are also proposing the introduction of licence and regulatory fees, plus fees for breaches of the regulation, and then proposing that you retool your industry in that way," Allen noted.

"It's the death knell of the sector if we simply take these decisions and go ahead willy-nilly."

Allen wants an open standard to remain in place and for there to be a longer period before the switchover.

But Dunn is pointing to the need for Jamaican-produced media content to be compatible with the systems being used by potential buyers overseas as a major driver for the DSO here.

"Most of the developed countries to which we sell our products are already making the transition, so even if we have excellent creative products but in the wrong standard or the wrong technology, we cannot sell our products abroad," said Dunn.

The 28 radio entities and licensed cable operators do not stand to be as seriously affected where costs are concerned as will be the licensed three free-to-air television operators — CVM, TVJ and LOVE 101 TV. These outfits face the daunting task of acquiring new production equipment, including cameras and data-gathering systems, studio facilities, and transmission devices.

"The cost is related to the necessary transitions that each sector, each company has to engage in in terms of transitioning their equipment and facility from one state to the next," Dunn said when asked what the likely total costs involved.

"The broadcasting sector faces an expensive transition task, (but) because the cable sector does not engage too heavily in the production side, their technology can be more easily transitioned," he added.

Around the world, DSO has picked up pace, with a number of European countries having already completed the process. The United Kingdom has chosen to do a region-by-region switchover, to be completed by 2012. In the United States, the plug was pulled on the old analogue system across all 50 states in June 2009.

For television, the move does not require consumers to acquire new sets, but rather a set-top converter.

Full digital

In Jamaica, telephone, Internet and cable TV provider, Flow, is the sole service provider which entered the market with full digital technology, having invested some US$250 million in the process.

The company has projected that it will spend an additional US$250 million to complete the build-out of its network infrastructure by about 2015.

Dunn said the delay in the original end date for the Flow build-out, which now takes it within the ball park of the DSO date, appears to be a matter of coincidence.

"But it is the position of the Broadcasting Commission that Flow, like any licensed operator, must deliver the connectivity and the roll-out in the time frame defined, or ahead of those schedules, and that is the discussion we are having with them now," he said.

"This cannot be four or five years of laid-back operation. It requires a proactive approach in which everybody in the industry has to be on-board."

Other cable operators are in the process of upgrading their systems to digital. Kingston-based cable company, Logic One Limited, is now fully digital, having completed the process in August. Its chief executive, Paula Francis, has declined to disclose the cost involved.

"It was a costly venture, but this was cushioned by the investment of capital and equipment from our partners," she said.