Review of Broadcast, Interactive, Internet and Hybrid TV in Africa (TVA) 2011

I will not be involved in this conference for the reasons set out in this weblog article.

TVA 2011 was an impressive event, with over 200 attendees and visitors, its success can be attributed to 3 factors:

  • Built in Africa for Africa, Vital Training an African business put TVA together, they’re living and breathing the region’s issues every day;
  • Built by the industry for the industry, the people involved in bringing the conference together each have 20+ years of industry experience; and
  • Covering the whole TV ecosystem, from content production through to acronym-full bleeding-edge technology.

Below are some slides showing tidbits from the conference to give you a feel for the world-class quality of presentations and the breadth of topics covered.  The conference was sponsored by Huawei (platinum sponsor) with an impressive stand as you entered the conference; silver sponsors included Alticast, IMPALA and Verimatrix; and additional stands from ICASA (Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) who also endorsed the show, SysMedia and Antfarm (a real cool group of guys who recognized the importance of CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) back in 2000 when they founded the company.)  An important aspect of the conference was giving the speakers in each session a chance to discuss the issues with the audience through panel discussions, this was where many of the insights were generated, and it even got a little controversial, though always in good humor which was a theme throughout the conference.

Day 1 Summary

The opening keynote for TV Africa was given by Professor James Kulubi of the African Telecommunications Union, which set the tone for the event.  Professor James Kulubi clearly articulated the changes happening in Africa, such as it being the fastest growing mobile market in world, the many innovations originating from Africa’s unique situation such as MPESA and mHealth.  The continent’s transition to digital TV will create similar growth and innovations.  He described the importance of education in Africa, and why the transition to Digital TV must be used to promote education throughout the continent.

Multichoice (Chris Oberholzer) and Altech UEC (Alan Sullivan) provided a good overview of the challenges and characteristics of the African market.  They described a project aimed at offering an enriched DSTV user experience and interactive services, by developing a linear TV over IP network offer.  Interactivity is difficult in Africa given the lack of fixed broadband infrastructure, current broadband costs, and variable performance of mobile broadband.  Africa is a diverse market, so diverse solutions are required.  The MultiChoice / UEC project provides an example of how Hybrid TV is being introduced into the market to deliver a richer experience.

IMPALA (Joss Armitage) is a not-for-profit organization whose aim is to promote the use of MHEG-5 (Multimedia and Hypermedia Experts Group).  Joss provided an overview of MHEG and MHEG-IC (MHEG Interaction Channel), explaining how they have achieved significant deployments in the UK, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia.  It presents a mature standard that can be implemented at low cost, which is important for the African market in achieving universal service obligations.   The only issue is the number of developers available to create content and services in MHEG.

Huawei (Ted Hsuing) provided a great summary of the challenges and opportunities of digital TV and provided some good information on Huawei’s experiences in this space.  They are clearly committed to the region and to helping governments meet their challenging DSO (Digital Switch Over) targets.

Alticast (Anthony Smith-Chaigneau) provided a great presentation on DVB-GEM.  Its capabilities and use of Java (millions of experienced developers) enables it to provide a rich experience to the user.  There are potentially higher component costs, but without specific STB (Set Top Box) implementations to compare its hard to quantify.  Another option is HbbTV (which has specified CE-HTML (Consumer Electronics HyperText Markup Language)).  Its component costs are definitely higher than DVB-GEM; however, it does enable all web developers (tens of millions) to be able to create content for the platform.

For Africa the key is to define what Universal Service means.  That is, what services will be universally available.  Of course broadcast TV and radio, but specifically what services above that, e.g. if education is a core requirement, what specifically needs to be supported?  With the services defined its then possible to see (through real product comparisons) the service capability versus cost from the many STB suppliers in this space.  There is no right decision, all have compromises, but the current state of no decision is the worst possible position.

Verimatrix (Pierre Hunter) gave a great overview on the use of HTTP Live Streaming to support over the top services, and how security (conditional access) is applied in multi-access scenarios.  The content owners’ approval of the security solution is critical, as without it the content cannot be provided.  Also content owners’ rights must be negotiated for each method, e.g. the rights for mobile, broadband, and internet are separate.  Currently the content owners are the biggest challenge in enabling TV Everywhere for most PayTV providers.  This is a theme that recurs several times, the content owners are the puppet-masters in the TV ecosystem.

Henning Viljoen from the UN Industrial Development Organization explained the role they play in supporting local manufacturers, in particular for local STB manufacturers.  Then Dumisa Ngwenya from ICASA (Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) gave a great overview of DTT (Digital Terrestrial TV) and Mobile TV and the potential business models and innovations.  There was much discussion on whether DVB-H made sense in Africa.  Johannes von Weyssenhoff gave a presentation on “Understanding the latest Developments in Digital Standards for Mobile and Sound Broadcasting: The second generation digital terrestrial broadcasting system (DVB-T2) and other relevant standards.”  His recommendation is given Africa is planning to implement DVB-T2, it would make more sense to wait for DVB-NGH (Next Generation handset) than continue with the current DVB-H roll-out.

At the end of Day 1 it was clear the critical role regulation has in the African market, and the need for decisions to be made soon and then sticking with it to meet the ITU goal of analog switch off by 2015.  As discussed many times during the day putting a browser on a TV does not work, just like a mobile phone, hence the explosion in applications.  Also important is to recognize that Hybrid TV can refer to a Hybrid experience, i.e. the use of broadcast TV and the mobile phone for the interactive experience, e.g. SMS.  Defining the services within universal service is going to be critical to helping the regulator make a decision quickly, rather than being mired in technology discussions.

Day 2 Summary

Stephen Mncube the Chairman of ICASA gave an impressive keynote speech on ICASA’s vision and role in the digital TV migration.  It’s clear the African governments see the digital TV migration as an opportunity to help leapfrog Africa’s education system and address the many infrastructure challenges they face.  Stephen referred to his childhood in Soweto and the lack of a library, with digital TV every child could have a library through their TV.

Peter Griffiths (interactive editor Carte Blanche) gave the second keynote of the day on his experience of making the popular current affairs TV show Carte Blanche interactive.  They used Facebook for viewers to ‘like’ which 3 out of 6 articles the show would run.  About 5% of the total viewership participated and it resulted in a massive spike in their social media activity, which has sustained, giving them a 9 month uplift on Facebook growth.  This clearly showed the current state of the art on the content production side of the business in the use of interactive TV, and highlights the importance of using existing platforms.  So an interactive TV channel would only likely be an element of their total digital interactive media, mobile and web will remain more important.

Thabo Makenete from the Universal Service Access Agency of South Africa explained how they are looking to subsidize at least 5 Million needy TV households towards the cost of an STB, contributing to: manufacturing of those STBs by local manufacturers; distribution to all areas, including far flung rural areas; retailing, with more focus in rural areas where many of the target TV households are located; and installation of STBs in households that may not be able to self-install.  The practical realities of moving to digital are sizable.  Motivation will be critical, as in other countries advertising the benefits (more channels, radio, better quality, education, etc.) as well as making it fashionable.

I remain perplexed on the need for local STB manufacturing.  I understand the need to create jobs, but perhaps jobs in STB manufacture are not the best use of Africa’s resources.  Perhaps training so Africans can create the applications and services that will run on the STBs (in Africa and the rest of the World) would be a more future proof use of the investment, and simply buy the STBs from one of the many large volume suppliers in Asia.

The next session covered a critical technology for IPTV and Over The Top TV, Content Delivery Networks.  LimeLight Networks and their African partner BCX CDN gave a great status report on the role of CDNs.  Put simply: without Limelight OTT TV is not possible.  BCX have licensed Limelight’s technology to create a regional CDN, linked to Limelight’s global CDN.  This enables Limelight to deliver both globally and locally.

Antfarm started in 2000, recognizing the need for CDNs very early on.  They’ve created a business in Africa focused on delivering a range of services on top of their local CDN for radio stations and businesses. They’re starting to see TV channels also following the model of the radio stations in broadcasting online.  Antfarm provides a great example of the need for a complete wrap of services in helping businesses and broadcasters deliver their content with a great experience on line.

In the afternoon I gave a presentation on Digital TV Successes and Failures, shown below.  The key points were Hybrid TV is essential for IPTV success, but content (in particular sports) is as, if not more, important.  IPTV growth is slow and linear, while OTT is exponential, quadrupling in the US from 2009 to 2011.  But behind all these changes is the puppet masters of the 6 main content owners.  Their aim is to maximize the margin from each customer as consumption becomes more fragmented.  Gone are the days when “how will this play in main street USA” is the main determinant.  Audiences will be across PayTV (Cable, Satellite, IPTV), Broadcaster (DTT), Online (subscription or purchase or free (ad-supported)), and across multiple devices.  The puppet masters are starting to find the margin per user is better over the internet than through the PayTV provider.  The pendulum will not swing all the way from PayTV, but internet-based consumption will become potentially as important.

William Yell from Vodacom gave a summary of the status of Mobile TV in Africa.  It’s clear mobile is going to remain critical to filling the infrastructure gap.

The final session focused on TV Futures and in particular 3DTV.  Because of the wonderful natural resources of Africa, nature channels and 3D are a natural fit, and we’re seeing some interesting innovations around 3D, live TV, aggregation and innovative ad supported business models and platforms.  Torsten Hoffmann (Global Media Consult) provided a great overview on the status of 3DTV, though the glasses are a pain, when the content is compelling, it transforms the experience.  3D pricing for programming is around HD pricing – its hard to add a premium at the moment as the market is in development.  Diversity in consumption is the key factor to understand: not all viewers will watch 3D (ever); however, enough in the industry think there will be an audience, where producing in 3D will give their content an edge in the competitive market of viewers’ attention.  The key is its all about the content.

Graham Wallington (Wild Earth TV) gave an inspiring presentation.  Content is critical to whether 3D matters.  Combining live, 3D and over the top creates compelling and unique experiences for specific content types, e.g. Nature.  Graham quoted gross revenues from some events of nearly $500k (given their specific platform).  Clear we’ve barely scratched the surface of the enormity of the changes new TV technologies, new distribution networks, new aggregation platforms and new business models will unleash.

At the end of Day 2 we looked back on 2 days on intense presentations and discussions that provided excellent networking opportunities, and new insights made possible through discussions across the TV ecosystem.  There is no right STB platform decision, we cannot predict the future, technology will change.  However, the worst situation is no decision.  Its critical to define what services will be universal, use that as the litmus test on which technology provides the best price / performance.  And focus investment for job creation on the content and services enabled by the platform rather than STB manufacture.

I will not be involved in this conference for the reasons set out in this weblog article.