Pixel perfect

15 min read
28 Apr 2017
15 min read
2590 words
In a few days, most cable operators in Nepal will have switched to providing digital television services, a move that will benefit everyone

In June 2006, an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference of more than one thousand delegates was held in Geneva, Switzerland. By the end of the conference, 104 nations across Europe, Africa and the Middle East had agreed on a plan to transform the world of television broadcasting by introducing digital TV. The target for the countries lying in ITU's Region 1 (Europe, Africa, the former Soviet Union, Mongolia, and the Middle East west of the Persian Gulf, including Iraq) was to complete the task in just nine years.

In Nepal, which lies in Region 3, the process of digitising television services and shutting down analog signals started in 2012—long after many countries had successfully transitioned to digital television. That year, the Nepali government amended the National Broadcasting Act 1993 and the National Telecommunication Act 1995, directing cable operators to digitise their services within a period of three years. This nation-wide transition, deemed the digital television transition or the Digital Switchover (DSO) by some, would mean many changes for everyone—from the content creators and TV service providers to the consumers. The deadline set for the cable operators in Kathmandu Valley to ready the infrastructure required to provide digital TV services to subscribers in the five regions is April 30, 2017. Digitisation is set to bring about many positive changes in content for TV viewers: more choice, better quality and more flexibility. It would revolutionise television-viewing.

The switchover was to be first implemented in five regions—Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Pokhara, Biratnagar and Birgunj. However, with the 2015 earthquake and the blockade, the transition was hindered, and the deadline was extended to May 2017. "The word around town now is that analog TV services will cease to exist May 1 onwards, but this is just misinformation," says Sudhir Parajuli, president of Subisu Cablenet Pvt Ltd. "This does not mean that people subscribed to analog TV services will stop receiving analog signals."

Why go digital

The disadvantages of analog TV are many—for the cable operators as well as for the subscribers. The biggest problem providers of analog cable TV content faced was that there was no way to monitor how many TVs were consuming their content. "A subscriber would pay Rs 400 a month and then split his line and share it with, say, six more people and charge them Rs 100 each and earn a profit of Rs 200," says Parajuli. Sometimes, Subisu's own technicians would provide cable connections to people and pocket the money, says Parajuli. All of this was a problem for not just Subisu, but also for the many cable providers in the country.

The old setup also meant that many TVs would be receiving analog cable signals, but Subisu would have no control over the distribution of their signals, which led to another problem. "When we were only providing analog cable services, we had only Rs 2.75 to 3 lakhs revenue-paying customers. And we used to pay taxes accordingly. But the government thought that we were under-declaring our income because that's a small number compared to the huge number of TV subscribers in Nepal," says Parajuli.

"The government would definitely have been able to earn more revenue had they implemented digitisation earlier," says Sudeep Acharya, CEO of Dish Media Network Pvt Ltd, the only service provider in Nepal that uses satellite technology to deliver digital content. We have been operating as TV service providers for more than seven years, and in that time span, we have paid approximately Rs 125 crores in taxes. That's because the government knew exactly how many subscribers we had, and our business was completely transparent."

With the implementation of digital TV, service providers will know exactly how many subscribers they have, as only one set-top box can be used for one TV, and there will be no issues regarding under-declaration of tax. Set-top boxes are absolutely necessary to decrypt the incoming encrypted signals, which removes all possibility of cable theft. The sales of these set-top boxes, along with the subscription fee, will mean an increase in revenue for the service providers, consequently resulting in higher taxes paid to the government. "The government will receive five times more revenue than they used to receive during the analog days," says Parajuli.

More, clearer content

Moreover, digital television allows cable operators to provide their customers with more—and clearer—channels with the same amount of bandwidth. "When we were providing analog signals, we could only transmit 106 channels. With digital, we are providing 187 channels, out of which 49 are HD channels, but using the same amount of bandwidth," says Parajuli. "Moreover, when TV signals are digitised, you also have the freedom to pick and choose only those channels that you wish to watch," says DishHome's Acharya. "In traditional analog connections, people had no say over what channels were shown on their TV sets."

"With digital TV services, we also get a lot less complaints from customers," says Parajuli. As the signals are digital, you get either great picture quality or no picture at all. With analog TV, however, the transmission is highly susceptible to interference, such as ghosting (a replica of the transmitted image, which gets superimposed on top of the main image) and snowing (a random dot-pixel pattern of static displayed when no transmission signal is obtained), depending on the distance and geographical location of the TV receiving the signal.

In 1985, Nepal entered the television age with the state-owned Nepal Television (NTV)-which worked with a completely analog setup. Out of the 32 terrestrial analog TV stations in Nepal, NTV owns 19 of them, which allows NTV to reach 72 per cent of the population. To this day, NTV still broadcasts largely analog content, but even they have made the switchover to digital TV.

Everybody wins

Digital TV offers many advantages over analog systems for the consumers as well as for the operators. Apart from the increased number of programmes and better clarity, digital content providers can provide services such as interactive TV, electronic programme guides and mobile TV as well as transmit image and sound in high-definition (HDTV). The more efficient use of the radio spectrum as a result of the switch to digital TV also leads to what is called a digital dividend-benefits gained as a result of shutting down analog signals, thus freeing up the radio spectrum. This space can be used for services such as 3G and 4G services, used by the telecom sector.

But to make the transition to digital, cable operators such as Subisu have had to make enormous investments. Because all the analog equipment will become obsolete in the digital market, a new setup has been required: new cables, new headend (a master facility for receiving television signals for processing and distribution over a cable television system), etc. But the largest investment made was in importing the set-top boxes. "Till date, we have sold 60,000 set-top boxes. Importing one set-top box costs Rs 4,200. We plan to sell four lakh boxes by next year. Multiply four lakhs by 4200 and that's our total investment," says Parajuli.

Digital TV offers many advantages over analog systems for the consumers as well as for the operators

The science

Subisu's digital cable TV service, known as Clear TV, uses fibre-optic cables to send digital TV signals to all its subscribers. Their programming sources (for example, HBO, ESPN) send their content via satellites that is received by Subisu's headend. Subisu's headend encodes this content and combines this with electrical signals and inserts it into a broadband optical transmitter. The optical transmitter converts the electrical signals into an optically modulated signal that is sent to what are called optical nodes. These nodes translate the optically modulated signal into electrical signals again, and the signals are sent through a coaxial cable to a set-top box. The set-top box decodes the encoded content, and it is then displayed on a TV via an HDMI cable or an A/V jack. "For subscribers who still own analog televisions that don't even have slots for an A/V jack, they will have to invest in a converter box—which costs around Rs 800—that will convert the digital signals into analog signals. But less than one per cent of our customers need such a box," says Parajuli.

For DishHome, this new regulation has not changed ground realities much. DishHome makes use of satellites to provide its subscribers with content. First, DishHome purchases content from programming sources. The programming sources use a headend to transmit compressed, encrypted content via a satellite. This content is then received by DishHome's headend. The encrypted content is decrypted by DishHome's receiver, after which it is packaged and combined with DishHome's encryption and sent out again to a satellite that beams content to subscribers. "We have leased transponders (a device for receiving a radio signal and automatically transmitting a different signal) on a satellite owned by an Israeli company named SpaceCom," says Acharya. This satellite transmits the signals to our subscribers, who receive the signals via the reflectors on their houses. A low-noise block downconverter (LNB) collects these signals and sends it to subscribers' set-top boxes, which decompresses and decrypts the digital signals and displays it on a TV, via an HDMI cable or an A/V cable.

After analog signals in the country are shut down, analog TV subscribers will have to choose from either a digital cable TV service provider like Subisu or a satellite TV service provider like DishHome. However, the consumers have one more option to choose from: they can opt for IPTV from companies like Vianet, WorldLink, Broadlink or Subisu.

Over the internet too

IPTV stands for Internet Protocol TV, and in this model, signals are sent, as the name suggests, via the internet. The first IPTV provider in Nepal is Net TV. It is a consortium company made up of Vianet, WorldLink and a few other bodies. Net TV makes use of Vianet's and WorldLink's FTTH (fibre-to-the-home) networks to send content to subscribers. "Content from programming sources is received through Net TV's earth stations. The content is then sent to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Vianet, and we encode it into Internet Protocol (IP), and all the content is stored on our web servers," says Binay Bohra, managing director at Vianet. "Now with the set-top box that we provide—which is actually powered by Android, thus differentiating it from a conventional set-top box—you are communicating with our servers and requesting our servers for content to be sent to you. The content that you desire is then streamed using the FTTH network in your home," he explains. There are numerous benefits of opting for an IPTV service. One of those benefits is the ability to re-view programmes that you may have missed. Net TV holds onto select content for a period of seven days. This means that subscribers can access select content that was broadcast upto a week ago, and watch it whenever they like. "In case of digital TV, all you can do is change channels. You are bound by time. If you miss a show, there's not much you can do," says Bohra. "That's not the case with us."

Digitisation will not adversely affect companies such as Net TV, as they were never involved in providing analog TV services earlier. "In fact, we benefit from this. All the analog TV subscribers will have no choice but to resort to digital TV services, and Net TV could be an option for them; our customer base can increase. Of course, there are other TV service providers in the game, but I believe that our prices are one of the cheapest right now," says Bohra. "Furthermore, if people purchase FTTH internet services as well as IPTV services from us, we can provide them with really good value for money." Likewise, Subisu too are offering bundled packages by providing internet services as well as TV services for a lower price than the amount they would have had to pay had they availed of these services from two different companies. DishHome have also been coming up with various schemes to gain more of the market share.

Making digital content allows the providers to create content that can be consumed on multiple platforms

Changes for TV stations

The content creators of Nepal, too, have had to make changes to adjust to the new regulation. "Digitisation, in terms of content distribution or content production, represents evolution. Think about it this way: once we had only propeller-powered planes, but today, we have transformed to using supersonic jets. Similarly, TV has always needed to evolve someday," says Bhusan Dahal, assistant general manager at Kantipur TV. "Digitisation meant that we needed to make content that was suitable for viewing on digital platforms. And with the sort of equipment that we were using to make analog content, it just wasn't doable. We had to overhaul a lot of equipment. Everything from the cameras, the hardware, the lighting, even the plug points needed to be changed. And this required huge investments-it was as good as building a brand new station altogether," says Dahal.

But on the bright side, making digital content allows the providers to create content that can be consumed on multiple platforms. "Our content today can be viewed on TV, on mobile phones-even in the theatres if the need arises," says Dahal.  

"When TV started 30 years ago, the household ritual was that people would wait for their favourite show to be aired, with so much excitement. And they'd sit down for the entire duration of the show," says Dahal. "That dedication towards TV-viewing is diminishing as of late, as disruptive technology is constantly upending the market. Thus everybody needs to keep up-the service providers, the viewers, the content creators. Digital is about evolving and we all need to keep evolving."