by Ian MacSpadden
WASHINGTON Mikael Jungner, the director general of the Finnish broadcasting company YLE, claims that "out of 2.5 million households in Finland, only 32 are unable to receive a digital broadcast signal today."
Jungner described Finland's remarkable transition to digital TV while appearing at the National Press Club Newsmaker event here last month. The transition is particularly significant because Finland only just terminated all analog broadcasts a mere seven months ago, becoming one of the first countries in the world to complete the transition from analog to digital broadcasting.
Mikael Jungner discussed Finland's DTV transition at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last month. Jungner and a delegation from YLE recently spent a week visiting with U.S. broadcasters and staff from the FCC, sharing their experiences in making the transition to digital. They discussed the technical challenges of implementing a nationwide system and the difficulties they encountered in migrating an entire population to a new technology. The lessons they learned along the way could prove to be helpful both to U.S. broadcasters as well as manufacturers who serve American consumers.
A DIGITAL PIONEER
The majority of the Finnish population receive their TV signals from an even split between terrestrial broadcasting and cable. In 1996 the Finnish government made the decision to pursue digital broadcasting, and soon thereafter began to set a timetable for the transition.
"The motivation of the government in making its decision was to provide a more versatile program to the public, more effective use of the scarce frequency resources, and improved technical quality with value added services," said Kari Mokko, press secretary and spokesman for the embassy of Finland.
Home of global cell phone leader Nokia, Finland had in-country technology resources to draw upon for its planning. Finnish broadcasting is run much the same way as the BBC in the U.K.; its revenue is based on a license fee paid by users. To raise the necessary capital for its new vision, YLE sold its distribution systems to a French company called Digita Oy and now leases access to the system.
"Digita began construction in 1999 on the first stage of the digital network, and by 2000 they were broadcasting in Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku in both analog and digital," said Jorma Laiho, technical director for YLE.
Digita Oy's Network Management Centre in Helsinki. ©Pentti Hokkanen/Digita Oy By the end of 2001, 72 percent of the population could receive the signals and by 2004 it reached 94 percent of the population.
The Finnish government resolved in March 2004 to switch to digital and announced that analog broadcasting would cease on August 31, 2007. Unlike in the U.S., the Finnish cable system had a mandatory switchover date six months later to guarantee that all services were available to everyone, independent of the distribution method.
MOTIVATING A POPULATION
"In the early stages the industry took the lead in informing the public, but about two years before the transition, the government intensified its activities alongside industry," Mokki said.
YLE's Jungner informed those in attendance at the National Press Club, "Only about half the population went voluntarily; the other half had to be pushed. We had a large portion of our viewers who said that they would rather give up TV than buy a box or new set. In the end, less than one percent actually did."
Jungner humorously compared digital TV adopters to Christmas shoppers, saying how some people went out early and got their set-top boxes, some waited until the last minute, and still others waited until after the transition was finalized.
Unlike the U.S. government, Finland did not subsidize the set-top boxes, a factor that caused resentment with the public, and which concerned the YLE regarding its lower- and fixed-income viewers.
To help solve this problem, YLE enlisted the help of nongovernmental organizations and charities.
YLE and government officials were also concerned that their messages were not reaching everyone. "Lots of information was given out to the public through all available media, but there were still people who felt that they were being left in the dark, namely the elderly and those in remote locations," said Mokki.
To solve the problem, executives at YLE adopted a unique approach—they personalized the project. In a move we'd be unlikely to see here in the United States, YLE's director general personally took to the streets to convince the public this was the right choice at the right time.
Jungner put both his name and reputation behind the project. He did it "partly to help convince the people that this was indeed the right choice, but also to insulate YLE in case something did go wrong," Jungner explained. Fortunately for him, the transition was deemed a success by all involved.
THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGE
The Finns provided a long window of simulcasting in both analog and digital even though it was very expensive for them to do so. The pay-off, however, was worth it. It enabled them to work out the bugs in the distribution and reception systems in advance.
They had some issues with shadow areas that could not receive the new signals, but the biggest challenge was the set-top boxes. "YLE was using DVB subtitling which gave more options but also more technical problems," said Mokki.
Jungner explained that the government had not thought to approve or test set-top boxes, so manufacturers ended up flooding the market with inexpensive devices that didn't work.
Since much of what is broadcast in Finland has subtitles, the failure of this system and audio sync issues angered many consumers. YLE eventually tested the devices and published their findings on their Web site. It was not an endorsement, which they felt they could not do, but it did provide guidance to the public.
"One benefit to the digital transition that we did not expect was the boom in consumer spending for new equipment," said Jungner. "Once the consumer made the decision to get the box, they then often opted for more equipment such as a DVR, and in many cases they also upgraded the TV to a flat panel as well," he said. In fact, sales of flat panel televisions soared after the transition, and today three in four sets in use in Finland are digital flat panel models.
THE NEXT TRANSITION
Finland is already looking ahead to the next transition. "MPEG-4 distribution and HD will be our next move," Jungner said.
YLE initially contemplated making the next transition around 2012, but plans to wait until 2016, a timeframe that will both allow the consumer to get the value out of their recent purchases, as well as let the technology mature.
"Consumers just purchased new equipment, so telling them they have to do it again in four years would not work," said Jungner. "There may also be new technologies that come about in this time frame that we may want to pursue."
YLE is already making 60 percent of its broadcast material available to broadband users. Jungner believes that broadband distribution will increase greatly in coming years, but he feels that until such high-speed access is cheaper and accessible to everyone, most people will rely on the traditional methods of broadcast, cable, and satellite.
When asked about the future of mobile TV, Jungner said "YLE sees mobile devices as more of an area to grow our radio programming and podcast business. The screen is too small to ever fully replace the in-home viewing experience."
"We are happy and relieved that it is over," said Mokki. "The whole process was extremely educational. We learned a lot about the power of cooperation and we will apply these lessons as we move forward and eventually transition to HD."
"Setting the date was the most important thing," said Jungner about planning for a transition. "This time though, we will test the set-top boxes!"