Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Ensuring Democratisation of Digital Broadcasting

Daniela Estrada*

SANTIAGO, Sep 23 2009 (IPS) - Just as they did with analogue television, the countries of Latin America have opted for different digital broadcasting standards. But more than this technological diversity, what concerns social organisations is the absence of policies and regulatory frameworks to ensure a true democratisation of this means of communication.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced on Sept. 14 that the ISDB-Tb (Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting – Terrestrial) standard with MPEG4, developed by Japan and adapted by Brazil, had been chosen as the system of digital television that will be implemented in this country of 17 million people.

The first official digital transmissions are scheduled for 2010, and the transition deadline is set for 2018, when the country will have to abandon the analogue system completely.

Argentina and Peru have also opted for the ISDB-Tb standard, while Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador have chosen the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) standard developed by the United States.

Uruguay, Colombia and Panama, meanwhile, have decided to adopt the European DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcasting Terrestrial) standard, while no country in Latin America plans to use China’s DTMB (Digital Terrestrial Multimedia Broadcasting).

The digital revolution brings enhanced image and sound quality, a greater number of channels and possibilities for transmission through mobile devices – aspects that are touted as the democratisation of communications.

In terms of economy of scale and equipment and system compatibility, “joint negotiations would have certainly been a much better way to go, but that option was suggested early on in the debate and was abandoned quickly,” Víctor Suárez, a Venezuelan technology consultant and columnist, told IPS. His country has shown certain interest in the Chinese standard, but it is expected to ultimately adopt the Japanese-Brazilian model.

An economy of scale would have made the switch more economical, bringing down, for example, the cost of analogue-to-digital TV converter boxes, whose high prices have so far been one of the obstacles to digital broadcasting in Brazil, according to João Brant, a member of Intervoces, a Brazilian social communications group.

Brazil speaks Japanese

Brazil decided to adopt the ISDB-T standard developed by Japan in response to the interests of its television networks, in particular the dominant Red Globo, Brant said. The choice was justified by the high picture quality it promises and its mobility features (reception in cell phones and mobile television devices).

A 2006 decree established the legal and institutional foundations for the switch-over, but legal action was brought against it in the Supreme Court alleging that it was unconstitutional. Nonetheless, Brazil launched digital broadcasting in São Paulo in late 2007 and has expanded it from there to many other cities around the country. The total switch, or blackout, is scheduled for 2016.

A movement formed by mostly university-based research centres had proposed a system with technologies developed primarily in this country. Japan promised to incorporate these technologies, but for the most part ignored them, and, according to Brant, only a Brazilian middleware (software that mediates between an application programme and a network), known as Ginga, was finally included.

The real issue for Brant is not the technical problem but the business model adopted by Brazil, which has donated the broadcasting equivalent of “unproductive estates” to the owners of the current broadcasters, maintaining the concession of the same six megahertz spectrum band they had for analogue television, but multiplying in practice their space by up to eight times, most of which will be left unused.

This means greater concentration, an issue that will be discussed at the National Communications Conference to be held in Brasilia in December. The promised technology transfer has not materialised either.

The left-wing government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had originally announced that Japan would set up a semiconductors manufacturing plant in the country as compensation for Brazil’s adoption of the Japanese system, but now it says no such commitment was made. Not even an assembly plant will be installed. The decision has paralysed the research that many university centres were conducting, Brant said.

Brazil has opted for “a model of missed opportunities,” most notably “the opportunity to democratise communications, by expanding the number of broadcasters and players” and “the opportunity to strengthen Brazil’s industrial park” with a national system, incorporating national components and innovations, Brant said.

For sociologist Manuela Gumucio, head of Observatorio de Medios Fucatel, a Santiago-based non-governmental media research and analysis centre, “the standards will all tend to converge, so that Chile’s decision to choose the Brazilian-Japanese system has more to do with international politics than technical reasons, which is perfectly legitimate.”

“What’s important is not the standard itself but the change that the country must make in terms of concessions and assignment of broadcasting spectrum to guarantee the passage from a uniform television system, which is not very diverse or plural, to one that will open up a space for sectors of Chile that have until now been silenced,” Gumucio told IPS.

In this sense, a government bill for the regularisation of digital television, currently being discussed by parliament, has drawn criticism from different quarters. In Gumucio’s view, the draft law has “many flaws.”

In a conversation with IPS, Claudia Lagos, director of the Freedom of Expression Programme of the University of Chile’s Communications and Image Institute, concurred with Gumucio, underlining that “the incentives or economic policies aimed at opening up the field to more players and citizenship-wide participation in this promise of greater democratization” can play a crucial role in this sense.

Among these, Gumucio mentioned “the construction of a signal carrier so that any new small channels that lack a regional market to finance their operations will not have to make large investments in broadcasting infrastructure and antennas.”

Risk of greater concentration

In Mexico, where the switch-over is projected for 2021, “the U.S. standard was chosen from among the many digital technologies available, without much explanation to the public, and it has only given the television networks a wider spectrum,” Aleida Callejas, vice president of the Mexican Chapter of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), told IPS.

TV Azteca, the second-largest television network in Mexico after Televisa, began broadcasting a new digital signal in February, violating broadcasting provisions. Legally, digital broadcasting must be authorised through public tendering of permits.

According to Callejas, the conservative government of Felipe Calderón lacks “a political strategy for the blackout, and has made no provisions to enable the population to purchase digital devices.”

Something similar is happening in Uruguay. Although the leftist government of President Tabaré Vázquez decreed the adoption of the European standard in August 2007, “it is still not clear what the timetable for deployment or the date of the technological blackout is,” Gustavo Gómez, head of Medios y Sociedad (Media and Society), a Montevideo-based grassroots communications group, told IPS.

In October 2008, another decree established how URSEC (Unidad Reguladora de los Servicios de Comunicación), Uruguay’s telecom regulatory body, will allocate the nine digital bands.

The three commercial TV stations will each receive one, as will the public TV station. Three of the remaining five digital bands will be granted to community stations, one will go to the private commercial sector, and the last one will be assigned to public television. But the definition of the mechanisms for implementing this “has been greatly delayed,” Gómez said.

“It’s still unclear what the procedures for granting concessions will be,” and there is no public discussion on the issue, partly because it’s election year in Uruguay and there is a ban that prohibits the granting of concessions a year before and up to six months after the presidential elections, which are scheduled for late October, with a possibility of a second round in November.

Gómez believes that countries in the region have chosen their standards based on technological criteria and “not necessarily thinking about democratisation of the media.”

“In Uruguay, for example, the idea was that because of the characteristics of the European standard, its adoption would be an opportunity for the country’s creative industries (software, for instance) to participate,” he said.

“The incorporation of digital television is an important step, but in and of itself it’s not enough to democratise communications. If it’s not properly regulated it may only mean further concentration, or more for the same broadcasters. So far there have been no signs that a real diversification of operators and contents will occur,” Gómez concluded.

*With additional reporting by Humberto Márquez (Venezuela), Emilio Godoy (Mexico), Raúl Pierri (Uruguay) and Mario Osava (Brazil).

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