Thoughts from Southeast Asia

I have just returned from the BroadcastAsia show in Singapore. Being a little quieter than NAB (and what show isn't), I had time to reflect on our business. The big interests at the show were IPTV and television to mobile. So what of HDTV? In a straw poll, I learned that many of the potential audience live in small apartments. HD receivers would be too large. However, apartment blocks are ideal for IPTV installations. One fiber to the block, then short runs of copper to each apartment — much lower cost than cabling streets of houses.

In Southeast Asia, the mobile phone is ubiquitous, so why not watch TV on that device? The region that BroadcastAsia serves has a wide demographic mix — from advanced urban areas to less developed rural areas. For most, analog television is still the norm. Are we going to see these areas leapfrog the use of fixed digital receivers and go straight to mobile TV? Will IPTV become popular in densely populated urban areas? A similar thing happened with the telephone. It proved cheaper to install wireless networks in remote areas than to string cable with copper pairs.

I have heard the same said of new television stations in Southeast Asia. With no legacy plant to integrate, they can buy the latest and more cost-effective file-based systems and again leapfrog last century's digital technology.

At the show, I saw the latest mobile receivers, and they're very compact. The receivers I saw used for the trials of DVB-H had a big “speed-bump” on the back and were heavy compared to a straight 3G phone. That's all changed now, and the new units are thin, compact and give amazing picture quality for the size. I watched some live sports, and you could actually see the ball! That's impressive encoding.

The mobile television operators have taken a much more pragmatic view on the roll-out of services. Compare the introduction of HDTV in the US and of mobile services elsewhere. HDTV was intimately bundled with the switch from analog to digital, and the switch-off set by the government. The technology was introduced before affordable receivers were available, and naturally there was a slow takeup by consumers. It has only been in the last 12 months that the cost of flat-screen displays has dropped radically, and the receivers are now affordable rather than luxury purchases.

Mobile operators learned a lesson with 3G: Consumers will not buy expensive handsets. With mobile TV — DVB-H, DMB and MediaFlo — there is no sense to provisioning a network unless there are receivers out there in large numbers. That means standard handsets that can serve large markets — in the region of 300 million souls. There is no place for niche technical standards. Now that handsets look to be available later this year at the right price and the right features, this may be the right time for mobile TV.

There is one little issue, and that is available spectrum. It's all a chicken-and-egg situation. Show consumers an affordable receiver, show them potential services, and they will want it. It rests with the politicians to devise a way to apportion the spectrum to make it all possible.

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