Brazil sides with big media in digital TV rollout

by Mario Osava, Inter Press Service

In a country as addicted to television as Brazil, disputes over digital TV, which is being installed this year, are naturally acerbic. The business is worth an estimated 50 billion dollars, and could bring profound social and cultural changes.

The first battle was won by television channels, when the government announced in June 2006 that the Japanese model of digital TV would be used. That was the conclusion reached by the movement to democratise communications, which is demanding a system that will promote development of local technologies, a diversity of channels and of content producers, and mass access to the Internet.

Brazilian television is concentrated in a few powerful networks, owned by a handful of families. Digital TV is an opportunity to revert this situation, argued the movement's activists, but the first government decision dashed their hopes.

Present networks will be granted another channel for digital emissions, with the same bandwidth as they currently use for analogue broadcasting. Thus existing networks will each have two bands during the 10-year transition period, with simultaneous transmission of analogue and digital signals.

There will be less room on the airways for public, educational, trade union and other civil society institution TV channels, which might have diversified content and offered a variety of services via TV, such as electronic shopping, telemedicine, distance education and electronic government -- that is, public information and services.

Digital signals have four times the capacity per channel compared to analogue, so broadcasters do not need the same amount of bandwidth for the new type of signal, according to critics. However, high-definition television requires more bandwidth, and it is in the networks' interest to provide it, in order to cater for the most demanding viewers, belonging to the wealthier sectors of the population.

Every detail is important and generates conflicts of interests in a country where television is the most important medium for information and entertainment. Televisions are present in 91.4 percent of homes, compared to radios which are present in 88 percent, according to official figures for 2005.

Digital television also provides an opportunity to promote wider access to the digital world, as an alternative to computers in terms of access to the Internet. In Brazil only 18.6 percent of homes have computers, and less than one-quarter of them are connected to the Internet.

Activists and organisations associated with the National Forum for the Democratisation of Communication (FNDC) fear that this opportunity may not be awarded the priority it deserves, because of pressure from the television networks and related industries.

But the decisive battle will be the definition of a new regulatory framework for communication. "The technology chosen is not the main issue," Angelo Augusto Ribeiro, a journalist and university professor who studied digital TV for his master's degree and is doing further research on the subject for his doctorate, told IPS.

It is necessary to update the Brazilian Telecommunications Code of 1962, which is so outdated that it does not even contemplate interactivity in broadcasting media, so that it is in legal conflict with the June 2006 presidential decree that instituted the Brazilian Terrestrial Digital Television System (SBTVD-T).

A new law could satisfy many of FNDC's demands, such as obliging television channels to fulfil a quota for community, educational and other public service programming, and making them include independent and decentralised productions, as well as access to the Internet and email, Ribeiro said.

Some channels, for instance, only air newscasts because the present law stipulates that five percent of their daily programming must be dedicated to reporting the news, he pointed out, stressing how important the new set of regulations would be. The problem is that Congress is dominated by parliamentarians who own or have personal links to the media, especially radio stations, he said.

The technology that is used is a less crucial question, Ribeiro said, because it tends to be solved through competition and market demand, so that current differences over the available options will be overcome.

For example, the type of modulation used in the United States was primarily oriented towards high-definition TV, to the detriment of interactivity and digital inclusiveness, which were less relevant in a country where close to 70 percent of the population already has access to the Internet, he explained. But technologies are now being developed to address those aspects that were previously neglected.

The Japanese technology was closest to Brazilian needs, according to objectives defined by a lengthy national debate, Ribeiro said. Now the challenge is to incorporate resources, equipment and software developed in Brazil, to serve local needs and reality.. The actual system is a much broader thing than the underlying technology, the expert explained.

The most immediate question in economic terms has to do with production of the set-top box, the decoding apparatus that will allow today's analogue TV sets to receive digital signals. A "simple" decoder has been chosen, costing about 100 reals (46 dollars), according to Communications Minister Helio Costa. Production and sales will be worth nine billion reals (4.2 billion dollars) in the first three years, he estimated.

But the set-top box itself will not provide interactivity or Internet connection, aspects that will depend on progress in the digital TV system, for which many components remain undefined.

In any case, a very complex decoder would be expensive, and price is an important factor to consider when establishing digital TV in a country where most people are poor, if the new form of television is to remain popular.

Brazil's decisions about digital TV will influence, and perhaps determine, the choices made by other South American countries, Ribeiro pointed out, because the new technology depends on having a huge market, and not even Brazil was able to develop a system that was entirely its own.

There are three digital TV models worldwide, developed by Japan, the United States and the European Union.

Brazil chose the Japanese technology, and hopes to add to it many locally-developed components, and even technology that Japan and other countries using the same broadcasting model could use. The expectation is that neighbouring countries will follow in Brazil's footsteps, enlarging the market and the possibilities for greater participation in the development of this new technology.

The introduction of digital TV in Brazil culminates a debate begun in 1992, which involved about 1,200 researchers from 79 public and private institutions, accumulating knowledge and technology that are already being exported, such as a decoder for the U.S. market.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey