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Doc’s IN: Can the broadcast industry operate online-only by 2030?

By Dr Amal Punchihewa

The broadcast industry has been discussing and building an ecosystem that predominantly streams video and audio for television and radio services respectively. Technology companies, research institutions and consortia have been improving streaming performance to optimise quality of experience (QoE), resource requirements, scalability, and other factors compared to over-the-air (OTA) broadcasting services.

On 1 December 2022, the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) organised a full-day hybrid seminar on the Future of Media, which was supported by the Korea Communication Commission (KCC). During the seminar, a wide range of topics were discussed on how emerging technologies, consumption patterns and convergence have disrupted the traditional media and broadcast industries.

In April 2022, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) organised a virtual workshop on the Future of Television to discuss how television is adapting to rapid changes by adopting appropriate technologies. 

As we commence 2023, this article discusses the specific future challenges for the media and broadcast (M&B) industry as we navigate towards 2030. As mentioned in my previous articles for this column, the M&B industry has to plan its operations and future with sustainability at its core, which will influence the business or operations of the industry. 

This article also aims to present a question to all stakeholders in the M&B industry: Will media and broadcast delivery be online-only by the end of the decade? This is a question that was triggered by The Guardian, which reported that “the BBC is preparing to go online-only over the next decade according to its Director-General.” 

According to ITU, digital broadcasting started in the 1990s for both television and radio. Although we saw the first digital switchover of TV around the year 2000 and an increase in digital radio transmissions, there are still a considerable number of countries that are yet to switch off analogue TV.

The switchover of radio to digital platforms is also still in progress in many countries. At the same time, broadcasters and the media industry have embraced streaming for distribution. TVNZ, a public television broadcaster in New Zealand, recently introduced simultaneous streaming of its OTA programme content. This bears similarity to analogue television broadcasting (ATV), which we will continue for some time while introducing digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasting services.

This simulcast service may last until most of the population has access to DTT with wider coverage and access to a digital decoder as a built-in decoder or set-top-box (STB). When OTA signals via DTT are not available, direct-to-home (DTH) satellite distribution has been and will be offered as an alternative. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the value of OTA broadcasting services, mainly terrestrial services such as DTT or even ATV, which is still prevalent in some countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific region (APAC).

This has been brought up and discussed in many workshops, including the ITU workshop held in April 2022. It is not economically viable to continue terrestrial broadcast in both analogue and digital forms simultaneously.

Having observed the changes in consumption patterns, devices and access methods, the question arises around what the distribution mechanism will be for the future. Over the last decade, I have been advocating and demonstrating that the distribution of television (also radio) is a mixture of DTT (or ATV), DTH, cable TV (CATV), over-the-top (OTT) and Internet Protocol-based TV (IPTV).

Except for OTT, other services are quality-assured TV services. OTT does not assure quality as it operates on the principle of “Best Effort” and the network (the Internet).

As discussed earlier, the BBC will reportedly shut down its DTT transmission in 2030 to move to an all-OTT distribution. BBC had already switched the BBC Three terrestrial channel to OTT pre-pandemic but had to revert back during the pandemic period as they could not reach its audience adequately.

With most of the broadcast revenue coming from OTA ads, what the BBC is doing is a huge aspiration in the broadcast space. This is especially true for a public service media (PSM) organisation that does not have advertisements to subsidise the Content Distribution Network (CDN) traffic and receives government subsidies. 

Based on ITU reports, the rapid advancement of technology and ageing population are two mega trends noted globally. Many advanced and developed countries have ageing societies, including the UK, New Zealand, Japan, and several APAC countries. As we approach 2030 and with the acceleration of digitalisation, a lower number of people will want a DTT reception. However, if we switch off DTT, older, poorer, and marginalised populations may suffer as the average audience age increases.

During the recent WorldDAB Summit 2022 that took place in London, the UK invited all terrestrial broadcast stakeholders to work towards protecting OTA terrestrial services. With ageing and marginalised populations needing access to information without any barrier or gatekeeper, some terrestrial services that were switched off in the last two years have been reinstated.

Can countries and their governments formulate policies to switch off DTT while assuring there is no digital divide? As spectrum prices come down, can there be substantial dividends to build infrastructure and support systems to have online-only distribution?

These are some of the questions the M&B industry should find answers to. I may offer you a response during the Asia-Media Summit AMS-2023 of AIBD to be held in Bali in May 2023, hosted by the TVRI, a public service television broadcaster in Indonesia, which has been planning the analogue TV terrestrial broadcasting service switch-off with its DTT network now in place. 

Next month I will discuss spectrum requirements and issues for radio and television broadcasting by analysing APAC broadband reach and readiness for online-only distribution, while meeting universal access for inclusiveness and accessibility with an acceptable level of QoE and quality of service.  For now, this is my question to you:  Having heard what the BBC has planned, what policies will you, your country, or global broadcasters in general formulate to switch off DTT in the near future?

Dr Amal Punchihewa is an ITU expert and advisor/consultant to the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), and was formerly Director of Technology and Innovation at the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU). The article above is his second of a new monthly column for APB+. 

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