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Universal Access in Broadcasting: Solving the Information Problems of the Digital Age?

Reza TADAYONI <reza@cti.dtu.dk>
Technical University of Denmark

Thomas KRISTENSEN <thomas@ps.au.dk>
University of Aarhus


This paper analyzes the possible regulatory aspects of access issues in digital broadcasting seen as a case of the convergence process. In the process of convergence -- especially infrastructure convergence -- digital broadcasting networks will play a vital role in the penetration of Internet services. The paper discusses the concept of universal access in digital broadcasting in relation to the traditional universal/public service concept found in telecommunications/broadcasting. An analysis is performed by drawing on previous experiences with traditional analogue broadcasting and by identifying the access parameters in digital broadcasting. The paper builds on a framework of the interplay between technological, political, and economic factors and aims at identifying the possible challenges to widespread access to digital broadcasting. The issue is seen primarily from a demand-side perspective. The paper takes off from a European viewpoint but the identified access parameters can be generalized to other regions/countries where convergence and digitalization of broadcasting is taking place.


1. Introduction

The communication landscape has -- at least in the industrialized countries of the world -- been subject to radical change. Most notably is the rapid development of the Internet, which has evolved into a serious alternative to traditional electronic communication forms. Internet applications and services have adapted to the capacity limits and have, at the same time, evolved with the increase in network capacity (Tadayoni & Magnussen 1997). This has established the Internet as a platform where the majority of communication needs of residential as well as business users can be fulfilled. The specificity and the required Quality of Service (QOS) of some services on the other hand still justify the coexistence of dedicated networks for broadcasting and telecommunication.

The traditional broadcasting and telecommunication industries have coevolved with the developing Internet, but technological development is making this current sectorial distinction difficult to maintain. Content and service provision have already been taking place across the traditional sectorial boundaries for some time. Different services can be carried on different distribution networks and the end users' access equipment will not be designed for a dedicated service. This process of fusion of content, service, infrastructure, and end-user equipment is denoted as convergence (Baldwin et al.1996) or re-convergence (Winseck 1998) in the literature and has far-reaching technological, economic, and regulatory implications (Mansell 1993; Collins et al. 1995 & 1996; Murrani et al. 1996; Mansell & Silverstone 1996; Mellody 1997; and Tadayoni & Skouby 1999). The regulatory aspects of convergence have also been studied in specific cases in the literature, e.g., a lot of attention has been paid to Internet telephony (among others, Intven et al. 1998).

The convergence process and the information economy in general pose a wide range of opportunities for communication and information gathering. But also a number of challenges, including the risk of creating uneven access for citizens, to the information carried by these new systems. This issue is not new in the history of technology. Traditionally in the telecommunications sector the issue was handled by imposing a universal service obligation on the Tele Communication Operators (TCOs), that is an obligation to provide service, in an even and nondiscriminatory way, to all consumers wishing a connection. Various forms of cross-subsidization have been used to fund this regime. In broadcasting, on the other hand, because of inadequate frequency resources, the content has been regulated based on national/cultural considerations in public service obligations giving the end user the possibility of access to some content and consequently excluding them from other content. Nonetheless, with the explosion of available services and the ongoing convergence process, it is a complex issue to set rules and standards for access, such as new universal/public service obligations. However a regulatory framework can be necessary for access in the convergence era, denoted in this paper as universal access.

Infrastructure convergence has vital service and access implications. The service characteristics are changed to fit to -- and to utilize the possibilities of -- different networks, for example providing TV that uses Internet infrastructure or provides Internet access using a traditional TV. The access issues are also influenced by the variety of the networks, by giving new possibilities for the end users to access different services.

This paper gives an analysis of the regulatory aspects of the access issues in digital broadcasting as a case in the convergence process. The analysis draws on previous experiences with traditional analogue broadcasting in Europe and identifies the access parameters relevant to the emerging digital broadcasting system. In order to identify to what degree these parameters influence universal access issues, the paper builds on a framework of the interplay between technological, political, and economic factors. The regulatory aspects of the identified access issues are elaborated further, seen primarily from a demand side perspective. The objective of the paper is to identify the optimal regulatory set-up to create even and non-discriminatory universal service conditions for all individuals.

The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 contains a general discussion of the convergence process and the access issues. Section 3 gives a historical overview. Section 4 deals with the access issues in broadcasting with a focus on digital broadcasting. Finally, section 5 contains a conclusion.

2. Convergence and access issues

Media or communication convergence is no longer a theoretical possibility but rather the realistic trend of the actual development within telecommunications, broadcasting, and information technology. According to the European Commission's Green Paper on convergence (European Commission 1997), convergence can be expressed as: "The ability of different network platforms to carry essentially similar kinds of services; and the coming together of consumer devices such as the telephone, television and personal computer." In the green paper it is further stated that "Convergence is not just about technology. It is about services and about new ways of doing business and of interacting with society."

Tadayoni and Skouby (1998) show that convergence takes place in all parts of the value chain from content provision to end-user consumption (see figure 1).

The aim of this paper is not to identify why (and where) convergence takes place or whether it renders possible new business structures. Instead this paper aims merely at the aspects of convergence that have an impact on end-user access issues.

The rising importance of the electronic information services carried by different networks gives the access question mounting importance. The question is if market forces and technological evolution alone will ensure sufficient service to all or whether it will be necessary to take regulatory steps to guarantee that some geographical areas or some groups of users are not left without proper access to the information society.

As stated in the introduction, this question has given rise to specific regulations in the telecommunications and broadcasting areas through universal/public service obligations. Where universal service has been ensured by cross-subsidies funded by the TCOs, and public service has been funded by governments through licenses from the individuals using the services, there is no consensus regarding the importance of the universal service obligation to the spread of the telephone. The traditional view is that it has played a pivotal role, but this belief is being challenged by others who say that these systems played, at most, a secondary role to the free marked and technical innovation (Mueller 1993).

Compared with the telecommunications sector, the situation is now considerably more complex. While the universal service obligation in telecommunications traditionally only covered POTS (plain-old-telephone-service) the issues of access in the information society are more complex due to infrastructure convergence and the number of services available. At least two problems can be identified:

3. Analog broadcasting, a historical view

Traditionally there have been two major reasons for establishing and maintaining a regulatory framework for broadcasting/mass communication: 1) the spectrum scarcity for terrestrial distribution and 2) the regular media political considerations on the content delivered, such as determining the number of programs in the national language and the ratio between in-house production and outsourcing.

In terrestrial analogue broadcasting, the precondition for accessing programming, provided the area had signal coverage, was simply acquiring the necessary receiving equipment: antenna, TV/radio, and so forth. From the political side, the efforts were primarily focused on facilitating signal coverage so the signal could reach as large a part of the population as possible. And second, the efforts were on regulating the content delivered (e.g., by public service obligations). The broadcasting provision was financed primarily by license fees and/or advertising.

The emergence of new distribution forms like satellite and cable did to some extent remove the spectrum scarcity problem. But did, at least regarding satellite distribution, impose new political challenges such as the fact that satellite distribution is not limited within the boundaries of a given nationstate. Furthermore the increased capacity in the satellite and cable networks seamed to open the possibility for other than traditional broadcasting actors to enter the broadcasting market and a number of commercial non-state-owned broadcasters came into existence. Also, some countries decided to use TV equipment for providing data services (Prestel project in the United Kingdom and the BTX project in Germany in the mid-1970s) (Jæger 1995; Tadayoni & Magnussen 1998). The history has since shown that it was the personal computer (PC) that won the competition to be the end user's interface for data services and neither TV nor dedicated equipment like Minitel in France could challenge it. Tele Text on the other hand was developed for the TV medium and can be considered as a broadcast data service on TV.

Finally, various forms of signal encryption have given the service providers the ability to offer services in a way that only people with subscription to the service have the opportunity of using it. This has been used frequently by pay-TV operators and can also be used by data service providers. These technologies that enable the providers to target their services to a group of users (point-to-point communication) has imposed radical changes in the broadcasting market with important access implications. With the emergence of digital TV, these two issues related to signal and content access are further complicated. The discussion of using TV as users' equipment for access to data services such as the Internet has been raised again in the digital era and this time there are strong reasons to believe that it can find its place.

4. Access issues in broadcasting

In the following, first the access issues in digital broadcasting are described, then the parameters related to access issues in digital broadcasting are identified. The general discussion of the necessity of political interventions versus the freedom of market forces to form the development is also valid in this field, but here the objective is only the identification of possible access problems. The parameters are identified as seen from a demand side perspective and regulation of some of them can have negative impacts on the development of technology/services.

Different parts of the value chain for digital broadcasting are depicted in figure 2. Even though this paper takes an end-user perspective, all parts of the value chain depicted in the figure have a potential for influencing the access issue described in this chapter. In general, the access issue in digital broadcasting can be divided into issues related to:

4.1. Potential coverage (access to signal)

The potential coverage has a "signal access" perspective and is related to the different distribution forms available for digital TV. Different distribution forms will have different coverage characteristics. With satellite it is possible to cover very large geographic areas, whereas cable TV will be offered in areas with a high population concentration.

Traditionally, terrestrial distribution has been the dominant distribution form for analog TV signals. During the past few decades, the satellite and cable networks have been used extensively for broadcasting TV signals, and other distribution networks like the Microwave Video Distribution System (MVDS) have been used in some countries. Recently, it has become technologically possible to use the telephone network to distribute digital TV signals using XDSL (generic digital subscriber line) technologies.

In the following table different signal access parameters are depicted for different distribution forms.

Signal Access Parameters
Coverage Capacity Interactivity Portability / Mobile Reception Complexity
Terrestrial Local, regional, and countrywide Low Limited (e.g., POTS as return path) Yes Simple roof or in-house antenna
Satellite Big areas, difficult to limit the coverage to specific country, etc. High High (e.g., POTS as return path) No Satellite dishes
Cable High population areas High High, integrated return path No Cable connection
MVDS High population areas High High (e.g., POTS as return path) No MVDS antenna
XDSL High Low High, integrated return path No POTS connection

4.1.1. Access parameters

In the following, the access parameters related to potential coverage are outlined.

Timing the termination of analog broadcasting

The socioeconomic considerations regarding protecting the users in their requirements regarding usability of their analog equipment versus the financial burden of maintaining the analog broadcasting network can give the policymakers an indication of timing for termination of analog broadcasting. In Europe, approximately 10 to 15 years is considered according to the naturally renewal cycle for electronic equipment (Digital Video Broadcasting DVB 1998; Digital Audio Broadcasting DAB 1998). In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set 2006 as the year to turn off analog broadcasting (http://www.fcc.gov/mmb/prd/dtv/#5).

The end user's investment

The political regime can force market actors to choose solutions that give the end user the possibility to access the digital broadcast signal without a heavy investment. In Sweden and the United Kingdom a terrestrial network is implemented for digital TV, which is the most inexpensive reception system for the end consumer. In Denmark, the decision about terrestrial TV has not yet been made but a study has been done (Digital Video Broadcasting DVB 1998) and a field trail is taking place.

Portable and mobile signal reception

Portable and mobile reception of signal will complicate planning and reduce the available capacity in the terrestrial network (Dambacher 1998), which already has limited resources. Political decisions in this area can be relevant because of the scarcity of resources. In Sweden, the terrestrial network will be planned for portable reception. In Denmark, the decision has not been made. Mobile reception will not be possible, at least not at first. For the end consumer, portable and mobile reception will give optimal flexibility in using digital services.

Regulation of set-top boxes due to distribution forms

It is in the end user's interest not to be forced to buy different receivers to access different distribution systems. Therefore a set-top box system that can handle all three major distribution forms (terrestrial, satellite, and cable) would be a considerable advantage for the end user. Even though such a set-top box at least in the introductory phase might be more expensive, in the long run advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

In NorDig cooperation (NorDig I 1998), that is a standardization cooperation between public service broadcasters, telecom operators, and commercial broadcasters in the Nordic countries, a set-top box is standardized. According to the NorDig standardization, one distribution form must be implemented in the box and an interface must be implemented so other distribution forms can be supported by connecting a simple external demodulator.

4.2. Actual coverage (access to content)

The actual coverage has an "access to the content" perspective and is, however, increasingly a question different from coverage and reception of the signals. Traditionally in analog terrestrial TV, access to content is obtained by acquiring a TV receiver. In analogue satellite TV and especially in digital TV access to the content is not so straightforward. Technologies such as Conditional Access encrypt signals and give only users with decryption equipment the opportunity to access the content and technologies like Electronic Program Guides (EPG) can potentially favor or discriminate access to certain data/TV service providers.

4.2.1. Digital set-top box

The digital set-top box or Integrated Receiver Decoder (IRD) is a box that converts the digital distributed signal to analog and feeds the regular TV receivers. The IRD consists of the necessary hardware/system software for among others signal tuning, demodulation, demultiplexing, decoding, and so forth, and an Application Software for processing the EPG. The Application Program Interface (API) and EPG have central access aspects and will be described in detail later in this chapter.

The set-top box can, however, be seen as an intermediate technological solution to promote penetration of digital TV using the existing analog TV receivers. In the next stage of development, the set-top box and analog TV are likely to be replaced by integrated digital TV.

A current problem is that different modulation technologies for different transmission technologies result in dedicated set-top boxes for cable, satellite, and terrestrial distribution. From a consumer point of view it is preferable to have a set-top box that can operate in all distribution forms.

4.2.2. Conditional access (CA)

Conditional Access is a system to encrypt and decrypt the TV signal. Primarily pay-TV operators use the system, but other operators can also use the system to control access to their TV programs. Conditional Access is a necessary instrument for access control and maintaining copyright for the content producers. But it can on the other hand limit the user's access to programs offered by one service provider. Generally two situations are foreseen:

4.2.3. Electronic program guide (EPG)

Both the quantity and variety of TV services make it in reality necessary to have an electronic program guide (EPG) as a tool for navigation between different services. The EPG is the consumer's interface to the services. The way the TV services are represented in EPG allows for promotion or discrimination of some TV services. Based on this, some regulation of EPG is widely seen as desirable to preserve national and cultural interests.

4.2.4. Application program interface (API)

The EPG information is distributed in the DVB transport stream to the receiver equipment. The software that performs the processing of EPG information in the receiving equipment is called Application Program Interface (API). The same function as the Operative System (e.g., DOS) in a PC.

4.2.5. Access parameters

In the following the access parameters related to actual coverage are outlined.

Regulation of conditional access (CA)

This regulation can be either on requirements on standardization of Conditional Access or interoperability between different CA systems.

The DVB project has identified two solutions: Simulcrypt and Multicrypt or common interface.

The European Union (EU) directive (EU directive 95/47/EF 1995) about deployment of standards for transmission of TV signals requires that the operators of CA systems offer broadcasters access on a fair and nondiscriminatory basis. This directive has been implemented in Denmark in the act on standards for transmission of TV signals (Danish Act no. 471 of 12 June 1996).

In Sweden all terrestrial signals are encrypted using a proprietary CA system. The end user must have a decryption card to watch digital TV programs on the terrestrial network (public service, advertising funded, and pay-TV services). In the United Kingdom only the pay-TV services are encrypted in the terrestrial network, other services are transmitted as free to air services.

Accessibility to EPG for all broadcasters

A receiver system must not exclude any broadcaster from the EPG. It may be defined as a simple right of the end users to have access to all service providers through an EPG.

According to European Broadcasting Union (EBU 1998)

Public service in EPG

Protecting the public service broadcasters by giving them a visible -- or at least even -- position in EPG. This is based on cultural-political considerations and issues related to public service obligations. Regarding Internet services, the public service concept can be discussed where some resources could be allocated to select service providers to have the freedom to develop their services regardless of the market conditions and undergo some national and cultural obligations.

According to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU 1998), "There shall be easy to access the programs from public service broadcasters by giving them a visible position in EPG."

In the United Kingdom, according to the Independent Television Commission (ITC 1997), "The EPG provider must give due prominence to any public service channels included on the EPG. Access to such channels should not be more difficult for viewers than access to any other services included on the EPG."

Regulation of API

It can also be a requirement that standardization, or interoperability between different systems or some rules about the availability of the necessary tools to implement applications. This will give the service providers the opportunity to develop their services, e.g., their own EPGs, and have an impact on the variety of services at the end users.

Free to air compatibility of set-top boxes

From the political side it can be required that all set-top boxes/integrated digital TVs must be able to receive all non-encrypted free to air TV. Free to air compatibility is a DVB standard and all boxes that implement DVB standards have free to air compatibility.

In Denmark, the Ministry of Research and Communication has determined (Danish Ministry of Research, departmental order no. 709 of 25 June 1996) that "Digital decoders must be constructed in a way that allows non-encrypted digital TV signals to pass transparently through them."

5. Conclusion

In this paper, the access issues in digital broadcasting has been analyzed and the access parameters seen from the demand side perspective identified. Digital broadcasting has been studied as a case in the ongoing convergence process where the boundaries between different sectors in the communication landscape are faded out. As is shown in this paper, the implications of the access issues in digital broadcasting go far beyond those in traditional broadcasting.

This paper shows that the access issues in digital broadcasting are complicated and involve a broad spectrum of technological, political, and economic parameters. Furthermore, the analysis in this paper shows that a deeper understanding of the different aspects of access issues demands contributions from different disciplines.

Solving the access issues of the information society cannot be done by a raw transformation of universal/public service obligations to the digital era. The changed conditions in the communication landscape require a new regulatory framework to be designed. In this new design the positive elements from public service obligations must be preserved to secure room for cultural development and secure a quality of information that may get lost in a market-oriented competition. The free nonregulated market on the other hand can result in a variety of provided services. A balanced combination of cultural policy and competition may open for greater cultural variety and can give the basement to consider the access issues.

The intention of the writers has not been to suggest implementing a severe regulatory regime to deal with the access parameters identified in this paper, but that the regulatory bodies and the market forces should consider these parameters and make decisions about them. For regulators, the decision to be made is to what degree regulation can play a positive role in securing acceptable end-user access to digital broadcasting services. Different scenarios can be identified: 1) leaving the access issues to marked forces, 2) implementing a severe regulatory regime, or 3) a mixed scenario balancing marked forces with regulatory steps. This paper has aimed at identifying the possible problem areas. However, further research is needed in order to identify more specific scenarios and to evaluate positive and negative aspects of different policy mixes.

6. References

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Winseck, D. (1998). Reconvergence. A Political Economy of Telecommunications in Canada. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, Inc.

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