Regulate digital TV, say execs

TV executives have called for government intervention ranging from light-handed regulation to "benevolent dictatorship" to further the cause of digital television.

TV executives have called for government intervention ranging from light-handed regulation to “benevolent dictatorship” to further the cause of digital television.

Departing TVNZ strategy head James Munro told a digital TV conference in Auckland that the time had come for “social engineering” on the digital TV issue. Munro, stressing his view was not necessarily that of TVNZ, said the country was set to trail the world in delivering digital TV services without government “holistic policies” on standards and access. The country could face the “marginalisation” of its public broadcaster, he said.

Munro believes Sky’s present monopoly of digital delivery through its own set-top box is limiting technical and commercial innovation, as the company tries to get the maximum return from its investments, and as a result we shouldn’t expect an explosion of services.

He said the physical or virtual separation of television service and network was essential, comparing it to the unbundling of the local loop in telecommunications.

Munro compared waiting a decade to see how digital TV panned out to not sealing the roads to see if other countries benefited from it first. He noted in comparison that at least access rates for broadcasters had been regulated with Sky in the UK.

TV3 chief executive Rick Friesen wasn’t as forthright as Munro in calling for intervention but said the country was “saddled with a government” that hadn’t yet decided on digital TV. The government should assign digital TV frequencies, he said, which could then be incorporated into receivers which don’t require a set-top box.

Friesen said it is not okay for Sky to own the “gateway to the home” and doesn’t want access to Sky’s set-top box regulated as it means reliance on one piece of equipment, though he believes now that TVNZ’s two channels to being delivered through Sky a national digital strategy can be developed further.

He said New Zealand relies on one satellite, Optus B1, but digital terrestrial television (DTT) — using ground-based masts — is expensive. TV3 had done the maths, he said, and could cover 70% of the country with a digital service for $14 million. Reaching the other 30% will require “assistance”, as did the analogue service. This could be done over a decade or so, if all free-to-air broadcasters shared transmission equipment and locations.

MED senior policy analyst Ian Hutchings says the recent amendment to the Telecommunications Act requiring TVNZ subsidiary BCL to colocate telcos’ equipment is quite specific to telecomms services, and TV companies would have to negotiate contracts as usual with BCL to use its towers to offer digital services.

Munro says he is “technology agnostic” but does not believe DTT would succeed in this country.

Broadcasting minister Marian Hobbs, in a speech to the conference, said that “the government recognises that these are issues that require government’s consideration and intervention in one form or another”. A discussion paper would raise regulatory and policy issues and deal with spectrum and transmission options as well as “the implications relating to access and content”. Hobbs’ office says the discussion paper will probably be out before Christmas.

TelstraSaturn business development GM David Plummer did not comment on the need for government intervention but says the company has a digital satellite TV system built and “ready to go”, though its shareholders have asked it to talk again to Sky to avoid replicating its system. It already claims 30,000 pay-TV customers.

Sky was invited to the conference but declined to attend.

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