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Latin America Goes its Own Way on DTV

In the United States and Canada, the U.S.-backed ATSC DTV standard is the undisputed king. But in Latin America? When it comes to DTV standards, it's a free-for-all!

Consider: ATSC has been chosen by El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, but the European DVB-T standard has been selected by Colombia, Panama and Uruguay. Several other countries are currently seriously considering DVB: Ecuador, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and a number of Central American and Caribbean countries, according to Peter Siebert, executive director of the DVB Project. "Other countries retaining DVB as an option, but with no short term decisions expected, include Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay."

Robert Graves, chairman of the ATSC forum said that most of the countries Siebert mentions also "are considering ATSC and ISDB [Japan's DTV format] every bit as much or more than DVB."

Robert Graves, Chairman, ATSC The region's largest country, Brazil, has its own homegrown HDTV standard. Known as SBTVD-T, this specification is derived from Japan's ISDB-T format operating in MPEG-4. Peru has adopted this same standard, reportedly under pressure from Brazilian President Lula Da Silva. In recent months, Argentina—which is also testing ATSC and DVB-T—has also shown interested in SBTVD as well as Ecuador and Paraguay. Argentina chose ATSC in 1998, but broadcasters in that country are also testing SBTVDATSC and DVB-T. Meanwhile, Venezuela is currently testing DVB-T and China's DMB-T/H HDTV format; the latter of which is being deployed in the PRC and Hong Kong.

Fourteen years ago, Graves said, the ATSC set the goal of seeing a common standard being accepted across the Americas. "It hasn't worked out that way," he said. "We now have three standards in the region; four, if the Chinese succeed in getting into the market as well."


TV format diversity is nothing new to Latin America. Even today, the region's countries use a mix of NTSC, PAL/PAL-SECAM, and SECAM formats for their analog broadcasts.

So why the multi-format madness, given the opportunity to make a clean break with the past and organize the Americas on a single standard? It's due to the fact that the countries in Latin America have different industrial targets, international alignments and service targets, according to Guillermo Wichmann, speaker of Argentina's DVB Coalition.

"Each country is selecting what better suits their objectives," he said. Also affecting these decisions are considerations such as "investment, employment, financing and cooperation commitment of the industries supporting each standard," plus "the payment of IPRs" [intellectual property rights royalties] to the owners of each HDTV standard."

Graves emphasizes that the influence of politics cannot be ignored. On this point, ATSC and DVB agree.

"Political considerations often play a strong role in the decision process and sometimes outweigh the technical and commercial advantages of a particular standard," said DVB's Siebert.

Case in point: "Back in 2006, Japan promised to build an IC plant in Brazil if they chose the ISDB-T standard," Graves said. "Three years later, there is no Japanese IC factory in Brazil and no plans to build one. But the country is now committed to its own version of ISDB-T—namely SBTDV-T—and is trying to sell it internationally."

Alvaro Gutierrez; an executive with the DTV equipment manufacturer SIDSA, a Madrid, Spain-based developer of DVB-based technology says that political factors are driving the decisions on DTV standards. "For instance, Brazil has a new standard and it??s working pretty bad, but Lula Da Silva is pushing very hard politically to its neighbor countries to choose [this form of] ISDB-T. So Brazil could export the technology in the region. But it's clearly a bad standard for the region; very expensive."

An overview of the region's DTV adoption, as of July 2009CHANGE MAY NOT COME SOON

At present, HDTV standards are in real turmoil in Latin America. However, this state of affairs may change, or at least settle down somewhat in years to come.

Politics notwithstanding, the expense of implementing a specific DTV transmission format and the cost of new HDTV sets is a big issue in Latin America. In general, the region "is not rich, and there are not many HDTVs in the market," said Gutierrez. "This will not change in the short-medium term, so some politicians do not care too much about HD. They are thinking in digital television in general, with interactive applications instead."

Cost explains one reason why China has high hopes for its DMB-T/H digital terrestrial television standard, developed with the help of Legend Silicon Corporation in California.

"When it comes to receiver prices, the potential economies of scale associated with China's DMB-T/H standard could change some minds," says Raj Karamchedu, Legend Silicon's director of product marketing. "There are 380 million television households in China alone, and the government there has set 2015 as the analog cutoff. Add the ability of this standard to support mobile DTV reception in moving buses—which is very big in China—the potential for mass producing this technology in cost-saving volumes is very high."

Wichmann, with Argentina's DVB coalition agrees that the push for DTV standards in the region is not HDTV-centric.

"TDT [Televisión Digital Terrestre; aka DTV] is not necessarily about HDTV in Latin America," he said. In other words, the push for DTV in this region is more focused on the benefits of digital signal transmission per se—mainly improvements offered by SD over NTSC, PAL and SECAM—than on bringing a widescreen HDTV to every home. "Many new HD services will be launched," says DVB's Siebert. "However, a significant part of the population will still not have access to HDTV screens and consequently, SD will continue to prevail for Latin American consumers for the foreseeable future."

Broadcasters in the region have mixed feelings about digital television. Some see DTV as an opportunity, while others fear the extra competition made possible from standards like DVB. "DVB is not a good option for broadcasters in general, because it's cheaper and faster to roll out, and it also supports multiple program streams," Gutierrez says. "A lot of broadcasters in the region have a very strong position in their domestic markets, so such DVB options are clearly bad for them—but good for the people."

Problems with spectrum coordination and roll-out schedules are also delaying the DTV transition in Latin America. For instance, "DVB in Colombia is going faster than ISDB-T in Brazil or ATSC in Mexico," said Wichmann. "Transmission and set-top box costs are other major factors affecting the DTV roll-out. Other countries still have to make their standard decisions, assign new digital frequencies and plan their analog switchovers."

Taken as a whole, these factors are delaying the DTV rollout in Latin America; at least in comparison to the United States and Canada. But they likely won't change the region's tendency for multiple formats based on conflicting political and economic strategies. As a result, it is quite possible that Latin America will support four (or more) HDTV standards by the time this technology replaces analog TV. That's just how things work here.

James Careless is an award-winning journalist who has written for TV Technology since the 1990s. He has covered HDTV from the days of the six competing HDTV formats that led to the 1993 Grand Alliance, and onwards through ATSC 3.0 and OTT. He also writes for Radio World, along with other publications in aerospace, defense, public safety, streaming media, plus the amusement park industry for something different.