Forget telecomms, what about broadcasting?

Does the digitisation of broadcasting mean we could be heading toward swapping one incumbent, Telecom, for another, Sky TV?

Does the digitisation of broadcasting mean we could be heading toward swapping one incumbent, Telecom, for another, Sky TV?

Already we're seeing convergence between television and internet traffic – TVNZ is embarking on a programme to digitise its transmission and looping in its Nzoom website, Sky TV has its digital set-top boxes in place and of course there's BCL, TVNZ's broadcast arm, which operates a near-ubiquitous network. BCL is being touted as one of the big answers to the question of rural access, as it has a network of towers dotted up and down the country ready to switch over to data transmission at the drop of a hat.

Rural users would be able to access the internet, for better or worse, at speeds at least equal to the dial-up delivery we see in most main centres.

Sue Kedgley of the Green Party says while all this is good news it raises the spectre of Sky supplanting Telecom as a digital service provider, and all that would entail. Her solution is to expand the role of telecommunications commissioner to include broadcast issues and to act as a neutral referee when problems crop up. Problems are already beginning to emerge, such as set-top box standards and who gets to decide on them, and I can see her point about needing an independent third party to do that.

Basically, there's no difference between television and the internet when it comes to transmission -- both are broken down into bits of data and flung out to the recipient. The only major difference is that internet users tend to want to send as well as receive, though interactive TV means this is also on the cards for box-watchers.

The telecommunications inquiry included Sky TV in its list of specified services "but only for the purpose of allowing other industry players to help develop a code governing access to these systems". This would have been a start, had the government included television in its final telecommunications bill.

It didn't, and while I can understand the desire to not overregulate, I think a commissioner to oversee this side of the industry will be needed in the next decade as digital TV replaces analogue. Currently Sky TV is out there pretty much on its own when it comes to digital TV. This may or may not be a good thing – the company is clearly learning as it goes and has had hiccups with its software. But it's bought out the delivery of content for TelstraClear's cable TV service and all of the major free-to-air broadcasters are now on its signal. Does this mean Sky will end up controlling the digital TV landscape? Quite probably. While it still, I would imagine, experiences the peaks and troughs of membership churn that accompany the sports season cycle, it is generating an ever-increasing customer base.

Any new player coming to the telecomms/digital content market will have to compete with a company that is, in effect, an incumbent. While Telecom controls the local loop, and any new player has to either buy space on it or build their own, Sky controls the set-top box -- the gateway to digital broadcast content and the end user. Sky will jealously guard this because if it gives away control of the box the customer can more easily change to a new provider. It's kind of like Vodafone and Telecom in the cellular world – if they both used the same technology we'd see true competition and the churn would hit new highs as customers freely swapped phone and switch companies. At the moment different set-top boxes mean customers are more likely to stay put – who wants to go to the bother of getting a new box every time they switch companies?

Television will remain a more important force in electronic communication than the internet while the levels of ownership and participation remain at the current ratio.

Television is a passive medium and its consumers are usually viewers rather than active users. Having someone watch over that industry is probably as important as watching over the telco industry itself.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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