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Q&A: Brazil Leans on South America to Adopt Its Digital TV Standard

Darío Montero interviews Brazilian Communications Minister HELIO COSTA

MONTEVIDEO, Feb 26 2010 (IPS) - Brazil is lobbying hard to get the rest of Latin America to adopt the Brazilian version of the Japanese digital television standard, as Argentina, Chile, Peru and Venezuela have already done.

Hélio Costa Credit: Fabricio Fernandes/Ascom/Brazilian Ministry of Communications

Hélio Costa Credit: Fabricio Fernandes/Ascom/Brazilian Ministry of Communications

This week, it offered Uruguay 40 million dollars in aid if the incoming government backs out of its agreement with the European Union to adopt the DVB standard used in Europe and other parts of the world.

During a brief visit to Montevideo, the capital of this country of 3.4 million people wedged between South American giants Brazil and Argentina, Brazilian Communications Minister Helio Costa pressed the advantages offered by the ISDB-Tb (Japanese standard – Brazilian version) in meetings with representatives of the incumbent government of Tabaré Vázquez and the incoming administration of José Mujica, both of whom belong to the left-wing Broad Front coalition.

The Brazilian government’s aim is to persuade Mujica, who takes office Mar. 1, to reconsider the 2007 agreement reached by the Vázquez administration with the EU and adopt the ISDB-Tb standard, Costa said in this interview with IPS at the end of his meeting with Uruguayan officials.

Costa and several of his advisers met with a delegation headed by Uruguay’s Minister of Industry Raúl Sendic and Senator Eduardo Bonomi, president-elect Mujica’s right-hand man.

“Brazil is offering Uruguay 600,000 dollars today to use in the field of interactivity and the production of content for digital TV” and, “if it says yes, more than 40 million dollars” to invest in the construction of equipment and the development of technology, said the minister, who was not hesitant to criticise the European DVB system.

Q: What results did you obtain in this first meeting with the Uruguayan government? A: It went really well. We came to propose joint participation in the development of digital TV in Mercosur (the Southern Common Market trade bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay).

Brazil adopted the ISDB-T system and perfected it with a series of innovations of our own, that will benefit, for example, public health, security, education and culture programmes.

From the original Japanese standard, Brazilian experts developed a more modern system that has a wider reach.

Q: What is Brazil offering Uruguay? A: Joint action, to transfer to Uruguay the technology that we have received from Japan, as we have done in Argentina, Chile, Peru and Venezuela, which have already adopted the system. And we are still negotiating with other countries as well.

Q: But Uruguay already chose the European system. Do you think the Mujica administration will reconsider Vázquez’s decision? A: That happened in Argentina. The government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999) had signed an agreement to adopt the U.S. ATSC system. But after carrying out a thorough study, the administration of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) concluded that the best technology was Japan’s.

The thing is, the European system that was offered to Uruguay has been surpassed; it’s already old.

For example, the video compressor used in the European and U.S. systems is not even made anymore. It’s so old that Germany, one of the main producers of inputs for the DVB system, is considering shifting to the Japanese standard.

What we want is the sharpest high definition digital television, with broad coverage in terms of kilometres and free mobile broadcasting, none of which are possible with the DVB system because it is dependent on the telephone line. Nor are royalties paid for this technology.

Q: Why did Brazil adopt a system on its own, and later negotiate with its neighbours, to persuade them to follow suit? Wasn’t it possible to reach a previous Mercosur, or broader regional, agreement? A: Maybe that was a mistake. We could have done things better. But in Brazil we felt that we were far behind the rest of the world with respect to digital television, and that we couldn’t wait. If we had decided to seek a joint approach in the region, it would have delayed things for us by two or three years.

So we reached the decision at the time that best addressed the geographic situation of our country and of South America, and afterwards we realised that it was virtually an obligation to expand our positive experience to our Mercosur partners.

Q: What does the offer consist of? A: If Uruguay were to decide tomorrow to start working with the Japanese-Brazilian system, it would get a head start on the process, because there is already a kind of script on how to do everything; the standards with Japan have been set. Everything’s simpler now.

And principally, just as the Japanese have transferred their technology to us, we are willing to transfer it to Uruguay.

Q: One of the criticisms triggered by the choice of the ISDB-T system was that although it allowed Brazil to develop technology, there would be no external market for that technology – with the exception of Japan, of course. A: If you look at the global map of digital television today, you’ll see how much progress has been made in less than two years. Besides Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Venezuela, the ISDB-T system is about to be adopted by Ecuador and Costa Rica, and we are also working on South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and other parts of Africa.

Brazil’s goal is not to sell digital television equipment; our aim is for the region to receive the technology that we have so that, for example, the equipment could be built here in Uruguay. We want Brazilian and local companies to develop in the region.

Q: Is there any example of this kind of arrangement? A: A Brazilian company is setting up shop right now in Montevideo to produce digital broadcast converter boxes.

Q: Can Brazil’s proposal compete with the EU’s offer to Uruguay, such as that huge market for the production of local software? A: The only concrete thing the EU has actually done in the case of Uruguay, so far, was to make a 700,000 dollar donation available for its digital TV project.

Brazil, on the other hand, is offering 600,000 dollars, available today, to use in the field of interactivity and the production of content for digital TV.

In addition, we have offered the Uruguayan government more than 40 million dollars, through the Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (BNDES – Brazil’s national development bank), which would also be immediately available as soon as the ISDB-Tb system is adopted, to apply towards the digital TV switchover.

That is another difference with the system offered by the Europeans, who came and held conferences, but didn’t show up again to sign a commitment.

The BNDES South America office is in Montevideo, and those funds are available here, for whatever companies in the sector need: to produce equipment, develop technology, etc.

Q: Will a similar approach be followed in Paraguay, which hasn’t decided yet? A: We’ve been working on this for a while in Paraguay. President Fernando Lugo and his government already know that all necessary conditions for adopting the Japanese-Brazilian system are at their disposal as well.

The same is true in the case of Bolivia. If we have just one single South American system, it would be very important for everyone. I come from the world of television, where I worked for years, and I remember how difficult it was for different countries to work together because of the different colour TV standards. There were serious problems when it came to broadcasting each other’s TV programmes.

Q: How do you respond to criticism that with the adoption of the Japanese system, an opportunity to democratise access to audiovisual media was lost, especially because of the negotiations of concessions to the big broadcast media outlets? A: That on the contrary to such claims, this system is the best one in terms of democratising television, because it has more channels.

It was precisely for that reason that Argentina adopted it. It gave a lot of thought to how to get as many channels as possible.

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