As the Middle East broadcast industry becomes increasingly reliant on digital technology, many of the region’s largest IT vendors are eyeing new opportunities in the sector.
IT departments of the region's television broadcasters have been faced with a difficult task of late, working hard to select and implement new technology in order to ensure their content acquisition and transmission systems are future-proofed.
Due to the limited amount of satellite bandwidth available within the local market however, it is no secret that very few broadcasters in the MENA region are currently broadcasting in high definition (HD).
Nonetheless, this doesn't mean that the industry is not HD-ready. The implementation of new technologies has dominated IT departments right across the content delivery sector in recent years, and were more space available, many would be ready to make the switch to HD immediately.
The Middle East's content delivery glut has not put a halt to new technology in the industry however, but resulted in a shift in focus among many broadcasters, which have since begun implementing the latest in IPTV technology.
Since then, some of the region's - and indeed the world's - largest IT vendors have arrived in the media sector with a sudden focus on the now almost totally computerised industry through a series of acquisitions and a range of new HD or IPTV products.
One such IT company that has leaped headlong into the industry in recent years is Cisco Systems. The networking specialist was boosted by the 2006 acquisition of Scientific Atlanta, which specialises in IPTV and switched digital video systems for service providers.
Adrian Pickering, executive director of emerging markets for Cisco Systems, says the company is attempting to accommodate for new trends in the field of content delivery technology, with a focus on the evolution and distribution of datacentres.
"With the increase in digital content, broadcasters and telco service providers are looking to evolve and virtualise their datacentres. The most effective way of distributing content and utilising the network is not by having all content located in the same place - you really want to have distributed architecture because if you don't, you are not going to utilise your transport network as effectively as you otherwise could," he says.
"We are currently developing a platform that has the intelligence to anticipate viewer preferences and now that we are delivering entertainment over IPTV, we can take a much more detailed, granular approach to viewing habits," continues Pickering.
Allowing for increased monitoring of viewing trends is one of the major benefits of IPTV when compared to more traditional delivery methods. However, many broadcasters in the Middle East are still reluctant to embrace this new technology.
The same goes for the adoption of HD technology in the Middle East. While some broadcasters are technologically prepared for the inevitable shift, many others are still biding their time, until more satellite bandwidth space is made available.
Haitham Dargouth, head of technical and broadcast for CNBC, says the Middle East's content delivery industry is considerably lacking compared to the rest of the world in regard to the adoption of new technology.
"The Middle East is definitely behind in this area," says Dargouth. "The US and Europe have almost universally adopted new technology and are moving ahead with it but in the Middle East only a few channels are doing so. I don't think vendors are the main cause for this trend.
"For example, in Europe, the infrastructure is already there for broadcasters to move ahead with the technology, but we don't have that here. In our region, 99% of broadcasters are waiting for more satellite bandwidth to become available before they make the switch," he adds.
Dargouth does not believe the entry of some of the bigger IT vendors into the broadcast industry will dramatically alter the situation. He says that traditional broadcast technology vendors will continue to dominate the content delivery sector, while IT giants will be popular choices for extra tools on the periphery of the industry.
"These big IT companies may step in and take a portion of the market, but I don't think they will ever replace traditional broadcast technology manufacturers," comments Dargouth.
"The main thing that will help them to claim a big market share is simply having quality products and I doubt that companies new to the field could replace those that have been working with the industry for 30 or more years. These companies will always provide helpful tools but I don't think they will ever create products that will become a major part of the broadcast machine," he continues.His comments contrast with those of Gabriele Di Piazza, managing director of Microsoft's media, entertainment and communications sector, who argues that traditional broadcast engineers would be more comfortable working with successful, well-established IT vendors.
"If you look at TV audiences, they are more fragmented than ever. Media companies need to work harder than ever to capture that audience on multiple channels," comments Di Piazza.
"There is now a very low barrier to adoption and the phase where there was concern about an IT player targeting the broadcast sector has disappeared. Obviously, there are still playout applications that remain hardware-based but I would say that most mainstream broadcast applications are based on IT technologies," he continues.
"Microsoft plays different roles depending on the geography. We have launched some software solutions, and also as a consumer company we have products like Xbox and Xbox live marketplace, which makes us an enabler and distributor of content," says Di Piazza. "So the role we are trying to play is across the whole relationship rather than just as a technology supplier."
He highlights the advantage some of the larger IT vendors have when they move into the specialised broadcast technology sector. While traditional companies have found their niche within the larger market, companies such as Microsoft are targeting specific sectors of the market.
Microsoft, in particular, has made its intentions clear and is aiming to capitalise on the inevitable technological upgrade that is set to occur with the trend towards IPTV and high definition broadcasting.
Di Piazza says Microsoft has already introduced a number of products which will ensure its long-term interests in the broadcast sector.
"Silverlight is a web interactive application that enables rich interactive applications cross browser and cross platform content," he explains. "It is capable of delivering digital content via multiple devices while providing interactive functionalities."
"There is a proliferation of opportunities that we are seeing with Mediaroom, our IPTV offering. I think that there are a set of technologies in both the managed space with things like IPTV and also for the unmanaged space. Silverlight has also been licensed to companies like Nokia, so we are starting to see more convergence between internet and mobile technologies and as I mentioned we are also having the Xbox and Mediaroom compatibility. We are providing the linkages that enable what we call connected entertainment," continues Di Piazza.
While the Middle East broadcast sector still lags in regards to the adoption of HD technology and many stations not fully utilising the available capabilities of IPTV, many believe that broadcast technology specialists will hold their own against the IT heavyweights for the foreseeable future.
"They may take a small portion of the broadcast technology market, but they will never completely replace the traditional broadcast technology suppliers," says CNBC's Dargouth.
"Of course they may claim some business, but it will all depend on the products that they make available. I don't think any other companies are going to come along and replace the well-established broadcast technology companies overnight," he explains.
"Although, there are certain factors that could see these companies take a healthy portion of the market. If they were able to offer more competitive prices, or improved interfaces for example, they may become more popular in the content delivery industry, but they will never completely replace those established companies," adds Dargouth.
In the approaching years, the Middle East broadcast industry as a whole is bound to begin revamping its technological arsenal to accommodate HD and improved IPTV capabilities.
It is the growing presence of the world's biggest IT vendors however that will prove to be the unpredictable factor in the equation.
But with the Middle East broadcast industry still trailing the rest of the world technologically, the big players will have to wait for adequate basic infrastructure to be provided before they can truly begin to succeed with their predominantly HD and IPTV-based technologies in the local market.
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