The digital future
was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1979, exactly 30 years ago, with the
inception of the Independent Television Network (ITN). There had been an
earlier proposal to start a black and white television service, but it
never materialized due to various reasons. That turned out to be a
blessing in disguise. Sri Lanka thus launched a colour television
service (the European PAL 625B standard) even before India did. India
converted to colour (PAL) well after 1982, when the Sri Lanka Rupavahini
Corporation, funded by Japan, began transmissions. In fact, Sri Lankan
channels were wildly popular in Southern India for many years,
reminiscent of the popularity of Radio Ceylon in India several decades
ago. Choosing PAL was a wise choice, as it is the dominant colour
system. Japan itself uses the old American NTSC system.
Three decades later, television had firmly taken root in Sri Lanka.
The first private television station (MTV) began transmissions in 1992.
Today, there are nearly 15 free-to-air television stations in Sri Lanka,
public and private, which telecast programs in all three languages. This
is a tremendous achievement for a small country such as Sri Lanka,
because many far bigger countries have fewer terrestrial stations.
Although colour television was available from 1979 itself, most
people had black and white sets in the early days, partly because of the
high cost of colour sets. The lack of electricity in most areas was
another problem, so many people opted for black and white sets which
could run off a car battery. However, as people got more disposable
income and television prices plummeted, there was a colour television
boom. Today, black and white sets are almost non-existent.
The television industry in Sri Lanka has tried to keep pace with the
latest developments in the world. Sri Lanka was one of the first
countries in the region to introduce NICAM (Near Instantaneous
Compounded Audio Multiplexing) stereo digital sound with bilingual
capacity and also the A2 German stereo system. Almost all the stations
are now fully computerized and digitalized.
The concept of one-man new crews has also become popular with the
advent of small, full high-definition broadcast quality camcorders. The
stations also use other media to their advantage - SMS, phone-in, the
Web are among a few.
There was a proposal to begin teletext services here, but it fell by
The other trends in the global television industry also came to Sri
Lanka gradually. Scrambled cable TV, broadband cable TV, satellite
television and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) are all available
here. If you have nearly Rs.2000 burning a hole in your wallet every
month, more than 100 channels could be on your telly 24 hours a day.
These technologies have made massive inroads in a short period - go to
any remote village and you will come across satellite dishes. One reason
for their popularity is that the local channels cannot reach many parts
of the country through terrestrial towers, but there is no such problem
with satellite TV which works anywhere within the satellite footprint.
This has enabled a large number of rural people to access television
But there is one major technology which had eluded Sri Lanka so far -
terrestrial Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB). Cable and satellite
providers already use this technology. We are stuck in the analogue age
while other countries in the region are forging ahead with terrestrial
DVB. Many countries have switched off analogue TV transmissions
altogether. The UK is a prime example for a country which pioneered DVB
- its terrestrial Freeview (commenced in 1998) and satellite Freesat
services are free to all and very popular.
The Government must therefore be lauded for its decision to go for
DVB in the near future. Once the technical studies are over, the
Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and broadcasting authorities
should draw up a timeline for DVB-T implementation and ultimately,
analogue switch-off, say in 2014.
One hopes they will choose the newer DVB-T2 standard which promises
better reception, but that is a mere technical detail. The two systems
will necessarily co-exist for some time, until all households are
equipped with DVB Set-Top Boxes (to make their analogue TV sets
compatible with DVB) or TV sets equipped with DVB-T or T2 tuners. The
Government should consider granting duty concessions for DVB STBs and
television sets. The STBs can be configured to record TV shows, pause
and rewind live TV and offer interactive services.
But DVB is not the end of the line. Many countries have now begun
widescreen and High Definition Television (HDTV) broadcasts on the DVB
platform. Right now in Sri Lanka, the only way to enjoy HDTV is to get a
blu-ray player. But that could change if we use this opportunity to
leap-frog straight to Hi-Def. Standard definition channels can also
continue. The Government can assist Rupavahini and ITN to make the
transition to Hi-Def and private channels may also be granted
concessions. Duty concessions should also be granted for the public to
buy LCD/Plasma HDTV sets as normal CRT sets cannot display Hi-Def
images. Satellite, IPTV and cable operators should also begin offering
HD channels. Yes, we are talking about overhauling the entire system,
but it has to be done at some point. That is progress.
What are the advantages of DVB? The main one is that more channels
can be accommodated on the same bandwidth, thus freeing up more space on
the spectrum for other purposes. Some countries have even 'auctioned'
the freed space to operators of other wireless services. Pictures should
be clearer and sharper in theory and there is the additional advantage
of digital surround sound. DVB also allows for on-screen Electronic
Program Guides (EPG), which are already familiar to satellite and cable
viewers. One plus point is that viewers do not have to change their roof
top antennas - the existing ones are fully compatible with DVB.
What does the change mean for the stations? As we have pointed out
before, they anyway do most of their work in the digital domain. High
definition cameras and sources are also regularly used. The only
investment they will need to make upfront is for digital transmission
facilities. However, the authorities should engage in a dialogue with
both public and private TV stations to get their views and ascertain any
requirements. Should they need additional equipment, concessions and
incentives should be granted for importing them. The transition should
ideally be a painless one for all the stations.
Before television, there was radio. The reports of its death have
been greatly exaggerated. The radio scene is more vibrant now than ever,
thanks to the Internet. Frankly, I do not know the number of local radio
stations that dot the FM band - I lost track of them sometime back. But
a radio station need not confine its listenership to the radius of its
FM transmitter(s). Right now, I am listening to BBC Radio 3 on my PC and
hundreds of radio stations from Angola to Zimbabwe are only a click
There's clearly more to radio than FM - there's the Internet and
Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB).
The latter is the radio equivalent of DVB. I stand to be corrected,
but no plans have so far been announced for DAB or its latest higher
quality variation DAB+ in Sri Lanka as far as I know . This is rather
surprising, because the cost factor for converting radio to digital is
much less. Even the cost of end-user equipment is much less, even though
listeners will have to buy all-new equipment as no STBs are available
for conventional radios.
All major manufacturers offer affordable DAB+ radios with FM tuners.
Again, DAB+ offers crystal clear sound (if a higher bit rate is used),
less interference and fading and text information on the current
program, song title, traffic info etc (a sort of EPG) and auto tuning.
Worldwide, there are more than 1,000 stations using DAB or DAB+. Taking
the DAB route will also free a considerable portion of the conventional
radio spectrum. The authorities should take action to convert analogue
radio to digital within a given timeframe. We will not be too late on
DAB+ if the framework is laid now - Germany is starting DAB+ broadcasts
only this year and the UK (which already has DAB) will have DAB+ only by
Technology alone cannot save television and radio if the content is
not up to standard. There are instances when there's nothing worth
viewing or listening on our TV and radio channels. Improving the content
must also be an integral part of moving to a new transmission platform.
The time is ripe for upgrading our television and radio stations
technologically and qualitatively.