Time to act: 2 years until the full switch to digital terrestrial TV
In 2 years from today, on June 17, 2015, the analogue television signal that everybody can receive through an antenna should be switched off and replaced with a digital signal. However, the government needs to make important decisions now, if the country wants to meet the deadline it has committed to in an international agreement, as have the neighboring countries. This switchover to digital TV is mandated by an international agreement between Georgia, its neighbors and the ITU, the global organization governing the use of frequencies.
Transparent selection of the network operator(s)
The government should now commit to have a transparent, fair and competitive process to select one or several companies to build and operate one or several networks of new digital transmitters (“multiplex”). Allowing private companies – national and foreign, as a single actor or as a consortium – to build and manage the network(s) that will then provide services to TV channels will save taxpayers’ money and will help to promote a market-driven media sector without undue government interference.
If the Georgian Tele-Radio Center (formerly known as AlphaCom), a state-owned company that currently operates Georgia’s television towers, were to build the infrastructure, this would mean that taxpayers’ have to pay the bill, while the state would have a stronger involvement in the sector than necessary. Furthermore, private companies in this field are more experienced, flexible and have more resources available to set up the new digital broadcasting infrastructure.
The time for political decisions is now
Key political decisions about the process have to be made in the nearest future. If the government opts for a transparent and competitive process, then a contest will have to be held in the fall to select the network operator(s). Now is the time for leadership. If the government decided to invite companies to submit proposals for the operation of the digital networks and choose the best proposal based on a range of criteria – a so-called beauty contest, the option recommended by local and international observers – the law governing electronic communication has to be amended to allow for such a competition. Starting this process in the fall might be too late.
If the government continues to further postpone the decision making, Georgia will surely miss the 2015 deadline, which could result in the country losing control over the use of frequencies that are currently protected by an international agreements between the neighboring countries, putting at risk key national interests and potentially undermining the development of the broadcasting and communication sector.
Need to allocate sufficient resources for the switchover
While the government started to take some first initiatives concerning the digital switchover in late 2012 and early 2013, hardly any progress has been made since. The Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, the government entity put in charge of driving the process, appears to have insufficient staff, resources and expertise to move the process forward.
The government should set up a task force consisting of experienced individuals who should ensure consistent progress, coordinate tasks and responsibilities between various government and private sector stakeholders and launch a public information campaign to inform and prepare citizens for the switchover.
Digital antenna television will bring many advantages:
- Better quality: Digital terrestrial TV will provide much better sound and image quality than the current analogue signal, some channels will choose to broadcast in the High Definition (HD) standard.
- New services: Viewers will be able to enjoy new technical services, including an electronic program guide or the possibility for channels to show optional subtitles or air programs with audio channels in different languages at the same time;
- More channels: Additional TV channels can be broadcast through antenna, providing consumers with more choice. Currently, the lack of free frequencies limits the number of TV channels that can be received.
- Digital dividend: The switch to digital will allow for a more efficient use of the frequency spectrum. As a result, freed frequencies can be used to introduce new services, such as the next generation of high-speed mobile Internet access. The auctioning off of these frequencies can result in significant additional revenue for the state.
The transition will require households to plug a decoder device (‘set top box’) to their TV, unless the TV is brand-new and has a built-in DVB-T2 decoder. Households that do not receive their TV signal through an antenna but exclusively through satellite or a cable/Internet provide will not be directly affected by the switch-over.
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