By Graham Day
Broadcasting in the Middle East has come a long way recently, and shows no sign of letting up. Graham Day regales Digital Broadcast with digital media’s evolution, and where he thinks the industry is heading.
Looking back at history is usually a safer activity than trying to predict the future. The broadcast industry is an exception as its general pattern of progress could, with a few notable exceptions, have been anticipated almost from the start.
Telecommunications began less than two hundred years ago, when wired telegraphy first allowed relatively fast messaging between adjacent cities. Based on manually-controlled Morse Code, this was an early example of pulse-width modulation. Before long, almost every country in the world was united by a single communications network. Regular radio broadcasting using amplitude modulation began in 1920, followed in the years between 1928 and 1939 by the commencement of television services in Europe, Japan, Russia and the USA.
First Middle East services
In the Middle East, television transmissions commenced during the 1950s with the introduction of regular broadcasts in Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Additional services followed during the 1960s in Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, North Yemen, Pakistan, Tunisia, Djibouti, Jordan, Libya, Turkey and the UAE. The decade from 1970 to 1980 saw the first television broadcasts from Bahrain, Qatar, Somalia and South Yemen.
Broadcasters throughout the world initially depended on terrestrial analogue transmission to their primary urban areas. These were supplemented by lower-power transmitters which received the main signal, amplified and re-transmitted it to local communities beyond range of the direct feed.
The Middle East covers a huge geographical area with a mixture of large, well-developed cities and widely scattered rural communities. Terrestrial analogue transmission served the urban centres well, but the introduction of geostationary satellite links gave Middle Eastern broadcasters a considerably more cost-efficient route to their viewers. Cable networks, each fed by a head-end receiver, were established in many towns and villages, distributing multiple channels of analogue television. This technology was in turn supplemented by direct-to-home analogue satellite broadcasting, each household having its own reception dish and decoder.
More recently, the entire world has experienced the transition from analogue to digital satellite services. These make possible a much greater number of channels and, subject to the choice of bit-rate, far higher signal quality than could ever be delivered over a long-range analogue network.
Digital terrestrial transmission
Digital terrestrial transmission (DTT) was a logical response to the competition between satellite service operators and owners of analogue terrestrial delivery networks. It offers much higher signal quality than analogue, allows a larger number of channels to be carried within the same transmission spectrum and includes the option of red-button-style interactivity. In some cases an upgraded antenna is required, but much of the existing analogue transmission infrastructure can still be used, so capital demands on the network-provided are relatively low.
Viewers in rural areas are already likely to have a satellite dish and access to wired broadband. In their case, satellite-based direct-to-home digital broadcasting looks set to be a popular transmission technology for the foreseeable future, except in countries with restricted-access policies which tend to favour broadband IPTV (including HD over IPTV) as being more easily controlled.
Satellite and IPTV co-existence
Satellite-based and IPTV-based delivery look set to enjoy a long and successful co-existence, given their differing strengths. Satellite transmission will always be the logical choice for broadcasters handling live events on behalf of large numbers of viewers. The delivery infrastructure already exists, the receivers are affordable and easy to install, and, most important of all, there is zero risk of contention if an entire city chooses to view the same channel at the same time.
IPTV’s key strength is freedom of choice. Until recently, broadcasters have been restricted by the dictates of their playout schedules. There are always viewers who, for one reason or another, fail to catch any of the actual transmissions even if a programme is good enough to merit being repeated at various times after it initially goes to air.
IPTV gives every mainstream television broadcaster the freedom to provide supplementary services for viewing on a PC or for downloading to a digital media receiver, such as the Apple TV, with an integral hard-disk-drive for programme storage. Looking further into the future, two-way IP communication via satellite, either using a microwave or laser-based optical uplink, might become practical for regions beyond reach of wired broadband ADSL. Mobile phone-based broadband services are meanwhile becoming gradually more affordable as well as increasing in data speed.
HD via IPTV and the third dimension
As a systems integrator, ATG Broadcast is actively involved in the transition from digital tape to the file-based broadcasting which forms the basis of modern satellite playout and IPTV streaming. Whatever the medium used to deliver a channel to their viewers, it is the ability to respond quickly to live events and to produce high-quality original content that keeps true broadcasters ahead of competition from the growing number of IPTV-based libraries. Now HD via IPTV has become a practical reality, streaming and download-based broadcasters have the potential to match the mainstream channels in terms of signal quality plus the operational freedom to focus on a specific theme or region much more tightly than traditional national or international broadcasters.
How will large-scale broadcasters respond to the IPTV challenge? A logical answer is by staying ahead of the game and exploring entirely new services like 3D. Major networks in Australia, Brazil, Britain, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia, South Korea and the USA have already begun 3D services or are about to do so. ATG has already equipped one of Britain’s largest production centres for 1080p content creation including the ability to handle the output from multiple 3D studio sources. Well-produced 3D, whether viewed in a cinema or on a modern domestic HD TV display, is a subjectively great improvement on 2D and will have a huge role to play in the future of television.