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Sustain DTTB: The future of broadcasting hinges on universal access to TV services for all

By Dr Amal Punchihewa

Recently, much of the discourse across the broadcast and media industry has been focused on the sustenance of broadcast and media services amid digital transformation driven by technological innovations. In several countries, both public and commercial broadcast services are being impacted negatively due to various reasons including increased cost of living. 

This week, we address the future of broadcasting in the context of public needs, access to information universally without any gatekeepers, democracy and media pluralism, access to the Internet and the ability to have continued operations. Care has been taken in using technical jargon or words to emphasise the continuity of services from the economic and social point of view while meeting current needs for sustainability

A new system, the LTE-based 5G Terrestrial Broadcast System, referred to as Terrestrial Multimedia Mobile Broadcasting TMMB System-L, has been included in the relevant ITU-R publications, developed and specified as part of the general mobile communication technology of 3GPP. Developers anticipate TMMB System-L will help integrate the system into smartphones and tablets.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) held a workshop on Terrestrial Multimedia Mobile Broadcasting (TMMB) on 8 March 2024 in Geneva, Switzerland, that discussed the ongoing studies on the network and frequency planning aspects of TMMB System-L, including case studies in some countries.

ITU Radiocommunication sector ITU-R has published several recommendations (ITU-R BT.1833 and ITU-R BT.2016, Reports) and reports related to TMMB systems. 

Besides the system parameters, those who work on TMMB System-L in Working Party 6A of ITU have contributed to network planning and implementation of the system in the sub-700 MHz band, including compatibility with existing digital terrestrial television broadcasting (DTTB) systems and they have developed related reports ITU-R BT.2049 and ITU-R BT.2295.

The ad-supported streaming and other key players are revolutionising revenue generation with tiered subscriptions. The broadcast and media industry is strategising to engage audiences and increase revenue through direct-to-consumer (D2C) platforms. There are reportedly plans in India to explore direct-to-mobile (D2M) and it is important to learn the lessons from past experiences. The broadcast and media industry needs to discover strategies for building brand loyalty, measuring success, and maximising revenue. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) and smart data that generate insights on-the-go could help and improve brand loyalty and provider preferences.

The UK government has unveiled plans to bring the content of online TV channels such as free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) services available via connected TVs under the purview of media regulator Ofcom for the first time. 

Besides the UK, many TV channels are being distributed online in many countries, including to Connected TVs and FAST services not subjected to the same regulations as those provided by traditional broadcasters. In the UK for example, Pluto TV, Samsung TV Plus, LG Channels and Amazon Freevee, are not subject to the same regulations as BBC or Channel 4.

Some channels and media operators follow rules on inappropriate or harmful material voluntarily set by the companies who run them. If a channel broadcasts harmful material, TV viewers cannot complain to the regulator about their concerns as most regulators have no authority to issue remedial orders. When people are watching TV, the same rules that apply to a programme of a traditional broadcaster should be applied across all content distributors, irrespective of the distribution channel, be it terrestrial, satellite, cable or online. 

More and more households now have a smart TV connected to the Internet. This has created an opportunity for many new, predominantly online TV channels to offer more content for audiences to enjoy their favourite content.

Regulators have to look at those channels that are not subjected to existing regulations and make sure people are not left behind by this move to digital. Should regulators consult the public on whether the regulatory framework needs to extend regulation to these unregulated channels and electronic programme guides?

Any change to regulations must ensure a balance between protecting people — especially the young and vulnerable — while protecting freedom of speech and media pluralism, and not unduly burdening the TV industry.

The UK government wanted a review of the future of TV distribution, including digital-terrestrial service Freeview, satellite, cable and online TV. Ofcom, the converged regulator in the UK, provided the UK government with a report on the future of TV distribution in early May 2024. 

The report outlines research into audience behaviours and analysis of commercial dynamics. People in the UK are spending less and less time watching TV broadcasts over DTTB. Report analysis anticipates that changing audience habits and rising costs could force a tipping point within the next decade where investment in DTTB cannot be sustained. This may pose a risk of access via the terrestrial platform for those who rely on it. Cost saving may not only impact DTTB but also satellite direct-to-home (DTH) free-to-access services that collectively sustain universal access to TV services.

It is important to explore what other approaches can be used to deliver universal TV services in the future. When we talk about broadcasting, especially public service broadcasting, universal access is an important aspect as mentioned previously. The DTT platform provides universal access to TV using radio frequencies. The policy and planning for future TV need to ensure the universality of public service media, with support for people so that no one is left behind.

Like Ofcom, any regulator in any given country has to consider stakeholder consensus and coordination, as the future of TV distribution presents a complex cross-sectoral issue which will be shaped by many stakeholders. Incumbent broadcasters, especially DTTB, receiver manufacturers and audiences are also among those key stakeholders. 

Bringing any changes to the future of TV distribution requires a clear vision and careful planning for the long term. Ofcom has set out three broad approaches where each model may offer some challenges and involve commercial or public policy trade-offs. These approaches are: investment in a more efficient DTTB service, reducing DTTB to a core service and moving towards DTTB switch-off in the longer term. 

The Ofcom report also shares that about 1.9 million households do not have Internet access in the home with a further 1.1 million ‘solely reliant on a mobile connection’. Not only in the UK but in many countries, Internet access is mostly concentrated around urban areas. A recent ITU meeting revealed that 2.6 billion people were offline and only 5.4 billion were online in 2023. Even some of the Internet access is not adequate to support media or broadcast access.

In the Asia-Pacific region, as reported by ITU and broadband commission, access is just above 60% on average. Hence, DTTB services cannot be switched off until almost all have access to the Internet to receive online services. 

If reduced DTTB services are offered as a core service, then the DTTB platform could retain a minimum number of core channels. For example, the main public service and news channels can be part of the core service via DTTB. While the audience uses the Internet to access a wide range of TV services, maintaining DTTB infrastructure that could deliver radio or TV is also useful if there are Internet outages. DTTB carrying core channels could be implemented as a medium-term transition to a complete switch-off after some pre-determined years — or even remain indefinitely as a provider of last resort!

Like the UK, countries such as New Zealand are also distributing their linear (pre-scheduled) programme channels with some branding. For example, the New Zealand public service TV broadcaster TVNZ branded its online services TVNZ+, where people within New Zealand can access TVNZ programme channels online as a live streaming service and some selected programmes on-demand.

Currently, the Freeviewplus hybrid broadcasting service based on DVB-T and hybrid broadcast broadband TV (HbbTV) service reaches close to 85% of the population. A high level of fibre-to-home (FTTH) penetration enables online access. Though there do not seem to be any discussions about reducing over-the-air channels, certain specific programmes are now distributed only via online platforms in a drive to reduce cost in a declining advertising revenue situation.

Broadcasters in APAC need to make plans to ensure service continuity in this region, which is diverse and where each country needs to look at their own TV broadcasting requirements.

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