Article - Issue 9, August 2001

Digital dilemmas

John Forrest FREng

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The UK has always prided itself in being at the forefront of broadcasting technology. It pioneered the development of digital television and, in the mid 1990s, was a founder member of the digital video broadcasting (DVB) project. This project resulted in a European technical standard for digital television which has now been adopted in most countries around the world.

Digital terrestrial television has not only brought higher-quality pictures and sound, but allowed many more programme services to be delivered in the existing frequency spectrum alongside the standard five analogue services. Multi-channel television, typically involving 30 or more programme services, is now relatively commonplace in UK homes, delivered by cable, satellite or by terrestrial transmitters. Some 3.5 million homes have cable television and Sky services are in more than 5 million homes. Sky will close down its analogue satellite transmissions this year, providing a fully digital transmission service.

Around 1 million homes now have digital terrestrial television, but this figure is growing relatively slowly and is projected to rise to only 1.7 million homes by 2003. Despite this, the UK is well ahead of other European countries in its implementation of digital television services. Arguably, the provision of ‘free’ set-top digital receivers and the competition for customers between Sky and ONdigital have been very significant factors in driving uptake.

The Prime Minister has on several occasions expressed his determination that Britain should lead Europe in the use of information technology. He has stated a desire to see all homes connected to the internet by 2005, facilitating many new services and allowing national or local government processes to be carried out electronically. Because digital television has been designed to incorporate a return path (through the telephone line or cable), thereby allowing interactivity between the viewer and service provider, the digital television and ‘Broadband Britain’ debates have become entwined. One consequence is that the government is seeking an acceptable way to close down the analogue television transmission system on a similar timescale to that for its ‘Broadband Britain’ targets.

One reason for rapid shut-down of the analogue system is that a certain amount of frequency spectrum would be liberated and could be auctioned by the government. Studies show, however, that the amount of spectrum released is modest – probably only about a quarter of the existing television broadcast band (namely, only around 80 MHz). Although the 3G mobile telephony frequency auctions netted over £20 billion for the government, it is unlikely that an auction of the broadcast frequencies would yield anything like these sums. The recent auction of fixed access licences for broadband radio has demonstrated this.

The other reason for switching off the analogue system quickly is even less quantifiable. It is the supposition that the consumer will benefit from and indeed welcome an all-digital multichannel entertainment and information platform in the home. Certainly, multichannel television has been welcomed by a certain proportion of the population, but now that these ‘early adopters’ have been satisfied, the penetration rates for digital television have slowed. All indications point to a large sector of the population who remain happy with the existing five analogue channels or, at least, are not willing to pay for the equipment and subscriptions necessary to receive multichannel digital television. No vision or cost–benefit analysis has been provided for the consumer as regards this concept of ‘Broadband Britain’ in the digital age.

Almost certainly, in the course of time – which could be ten years – all replacement television sets will have integral digital decoders, which solves part of the problem. To accelerate the switch-over there would have to be some form of subsidy to allow digital converters to be added to existing television sets and VCRs. The cost would run into billions of pounds – a sum that the broadcasting industry could not bear and which would also be unacceptable to the Treasury.

Rather than rushing to switch off analogue television (which in addition requires a degree of probably lengthy European coordination), we should be concentrating our energies on what we will require in the home of the future and how we will implement this. Even small businesses have a ‘server’ to run their computing and information needs. The same will be true of homes. This server will handle the control and monitoring of utilities, security, computing needs, and be the access gateway to the Internet and multichannel entertainment services. It could handle any necessary digital-to-analogue conversions and communicate with devices around the home by means of a low-power spread spectrum radio network.

A much more coherent vision could be developed around this concept: it offers a more sound economic basis, since the cost of the server and home network would be spread across many functions and give significant potential for revenue saving (remote meter reading, optimum energy control, integrated alarm monitoring, least-cost telephone routing, and so on).

Governments have a poor record when they try to dictate the direction and pace of change. However, there is a role here for government in providing a forum for various industries to come together to develop a market-driven solution for the digital home, which incidentally will solve the problem of digital broadcasting switch-over. The DVB project is a good example of how to bring all parties to the table and achieve speedy agreement between regulators, government representatives, content providers and manufacturers. One could do little better than to copy this.

All indications point to a large sector of the population who remain happy with the existing five analogue channels

Forthcoming events

2 October 2001

Hinton Centenary Lecture

Sir Peter Bonfield FREng, Chief Executive, BT

at 6 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1

5.30 for 6pm

10 October 2001

Satellite Engineering

Joint lecture with the Royal Society

Professor Martin Sweeting OBE FREng FRS

at 6 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1

5.30 for 6pm

30 October 2001

Lecture

Robert Kiley, London Commissioner for Transport

5.30 for 6pm

Sponsored by Parsons Brinckerhoff

For further details of any of the events listed above, please contact

Miss Eda Ramadan at The Royal Academy of Engineering.

Tel: 020 7222 2688; email: ramadane@raeng.co.uk

21 and 22 November 2001

Flood Risk in a Changing Climate: The Assessment and Management of Fluvial and Coastal Flooding

Discussion meeting led by the Royal Society and co-sponsored by The Royal Academy of Engineering

Further information available from the Royal Society.

Tel: 020 7451 2576; email: discussion.meetings@royalsoc.ac.uk

Sponsors

Ingenia are pleased to welcome Rolls-Royce plc as a corporate sponsor of the magazine for the next 12 months. Rolls-Royce is a technology leader and power systems integrator in global markets. Over recent years, it has been applying technologies and capabilities developed in the aerospace sector to the marine and energy markets, to create a broader-based company.

We would like to thank Ove Arup for their continuing generous support.

For further information about sponsorship, contact:

Christa Langan

The Royal Academy of Engineering

29 Great Peter Street

London

SW1P 3LW

Tel: 020 7227 0520

Fax: 020 7233 0054

Email: langanc@raeng.co.uk

John Forrest FREng

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