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Digital December television's descent: satellite DTV signals are streaking to earth: terrestrial broadcasts of super-sharp television begin now--and the Japanese government wants all of us to tune in.

THIS MONTH MARKS THE start of a government-orchestrated plan that in a few years' time will change the way we all watch TV. Japan's first-ever regular broadcasts of terrestrial digital TV (DTV) get under way in limited areas of Japan starting December 1, and that's only the first step of a sweeping plan.

The coverage is now limited to certain parts within regions surrounding Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. But in 2006 it will expand to other areas in the country. By the final stage in 2011, all households will be able to tune into terrestrial DTV, according to the plan.

In July of that year, the nation's broadcasters are to shut down all analog broadcasting, as required by law. Every TV viewer in the land will be expected to have made the switch to digital either by buying new digital TV sets or installing set-up boxes that plug into their analog sets. In short, the project's goal is to put about 100 million digitally compliant TV receivers into 48 million households.

But will it all go smoothly?

For TV set manufacturers and government regulators, that was the nagging question this past summer when NHK, the national broadcaster, released figures on the fledgling broadcast satellite (BS) digital TV industry. The numbers showed that a mere 4.32 million households had bought TV sets and tuners that allow them to view the digital signals from space.

When the signals were first beamed down in December 2000, the then minister of posts and telecommunications declared a target number of 10 million BS digital tuners by the middle of this year. Three years later, the actual number is less than half that.

It's not just the government whose expectations have turned out to be highly inflated. In late 2001, the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA) predicted that BS digital tuners and TV sets would number 8.6 million in Japan by now. What's more, the five stations that air BS digital TV have been in the red, with accumulated losses totaling more than [yen] 70 billion, Kyodo News reported in September.

So it's clear that Japanese consumers, against early expectations, have yet to embrace the new and expensive TV technology. A recent visit to a large store of the Bic Camera chain revealed only one terrestrial digital tuner for sale, priced at around [yen] 70,000.

"The images seem really beautiful, but the TVs are really expensive, something like [yen] 200,000 or [yen] 300,000 yen. I really don't want to spend that much money to watch TV," says Mayumi Chiba, 40, a copywriter who lives in Tokyo and describes herself as a regular TV watcher.

But at least Chiba knows about terrestrial DTV. Of the half dozen other consumers interviewed, none were aware of the existence of the plan to switch over to DTV. Several confused the broadcasts with satellite broadcasts, and none expressed a clear interest.

The history of Hi-Vision, Japan's version of high-definition TV (HDTV), may also present a foreboding case to backers of terrestrial DTV. After a massive amount of investment and lengthy development, Hi-Vision was rolled out in 1991, with trial broadcasts followed quickly by regular programing. Yet despite the occasional spikes in sales generated from big sporting events, such as the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, sales of Hi-Vision receivers were a fraction of what its backers had hoped for.

Yet as the government sees it, a total switch over to DTV in the near future will be essential ff TV technology is to remain relevant in the digital age. The new format could be a springboard for bringing more IT services to more households throughout the country.

"When terrestrial TV goes digital, it will be able to work together with the Internet to offer various IT applications, including e-government, e-municipal government and e-commerce," says Ichiro Kawamura, an official of the Information and Communications Policy Bureau at the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications.

His ministry has been given the job of overseeing the conversion plan, the latest version of which is formally titled, "[The] Third Action Plan for the Promotion of Digital Broadcasting." The plan lays out a schedule for DTV saturation. The terrestrial signals that begin in December reach 12 million households in the three selected regions. By the end of next year, the number should rise to 17 million, then 23 million by 2005.

But why are the government and related tech industries so eager to junk analog TV in favor of DTV?

The answer lies in the efficiency of the airwaves. In the same slice of the radio spectrum that it takes to send one analog broadcast, a DTV broadcaster can send several simultaneously, including those featuring super-sharp HDTV.

Also possible are interactive services and data transmission, neither of which can be accomplished easily with analog. What's more, DTV will free up the airwaves to allow the transmission of a full range of public-service information, such as earthquake emergency warnings and signals used by mobile devices.

The plan's backers like to point to Japan's vulnerability to natural disasters, as well as the proliferation of wireless technologies among consumers. "Radio frequencies are a resource, but they are extremely limited," Kawamura says. "We are trying to raise the efficiency of their use as fast as possible." He adds that every single analog signal must eventually stop for the sake of efficiency--a priority in Japan, where airwaves are particularly congested. "These frequencies are being used all over the place. You have mobile phones, TV and radio broadcasts. Additionally, there are emergency communications and satellites. But if you have analog and digital together, it's not a very efficient arrangement. So it's necessary that we stop the analog signals to get the most use out of the airwaves."

The government and industry reckon that such efficiency will eventually reap huge economic spinoffs. A document from the Information and Communications Policy Bureau cites a "positive economic effect" of [yen] 40 billion over the next decade from the sales of terrestrial DTV receiving equipment and the conversion of broadcasting facilities alone. And back in 1998, a ministry advisory panel predicted that a ripple effect on all related industries would swell to around [yen] 212 trillion.

Even so, the ministry's plan for the entire nation to go fully digital by 2011 has a slew of very prominent critics.

The October issue of Galac, a journal that covers broadcasting issues, devoted 29 pages to a special section titled "The Fall of Terrestrial Digital," which harshly condemns the government's conversion plan. The contributors are some of Japan's best known politicians and commentators, including House of Representatives member Takuya Hirai, Nagano Prefecture Governor Yasuo Tanaka and journalist Soichiro Harada. The main article was by commentator Mamoru Sakamoto, who set forth "10 definitive reasons" why the plan to go digital is doomed to failure.

Sakamoto told J@pan Inc: "I just don't think the plan in its current form will work." His major complaint is that the plan's numbers on the diffusion of TV receivers simply don't add up. "In a year, about 10 million TV sets are shipped in Japan, and there are at least 100 million TV sets in the country," he says. "The period from December 2003 to the 2011 deadline is less than eight years. But in an eight year period, only about 80 million sets can be produced. So there won't be enough digitally compliant TVs available. There simply isn't time to produce them all."

Ministry officials, however, say they have been in regular contact with TV set manufacturers, advising them to be fully prepared. The officials also expect that high-profile sporting events taking place between now and 2011 will help boost TV set sales. By the time the 2006 World Cup rolls around, for instance, 10 million households will be equipped with 12 million devices capable of receiving terrestrial digital broadcasts, according to a projection this year by the "Working Group for Deliberations on Diffusion," part of a ministry advisory panel. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 should help propel the number of devices to 36 million, it says.

Relying on international sporting events to help sell TV receivers is an old strategy in Japan, dating back to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Sales of TV sets soared in the leadup to the games, including the then-rare and exorbitantly priced color TV sets. NHK continued the strategy when promoting Hi-Vision, which, as it turned out, failed spectacularly to catch on among consumers during the past decade.

Critics question whether this time around--amid a lingering recession that has cut household spending and a less impressionable public--the strategy will work. Will significant numbers of TV viewers be willing to throw away their analog sets and spend hundreds of thousands of yen just to watch a soccer tournament in high resolution and surround sound?

Sakamoto says no. He believes large numbers of Japanese are content with their analog receivers and will remain so in the years ahead. Hi-tech digital sets may be in demand among hardcore fans of movies, sports, music and even nature documentaries, he says. But there is still a significant number of viewers who don't need or cannot afford such extravagance. "It's like having a Mercedes Benz,"

Sakamoto says. "It's a great car. It's well-built, safe and fast; the best. But only a limited number of people can have one, so they settle for a Corolla.

"With lots of regular people, like the elderly living in the countryside, children, youths and housewives, they don't really need the kind of high-quality images [digital] TVs produce." He points out that a typical family household has three TVs: a big set in the living room, plus a couple of small cheap sets for the kids and kitchen. "So a lot of viewers don't really want all their TVs to be large. For the kitchen, for example, a small TV is ideal."

Nevertheless, by the time 2011 approaches, all TV viewers will be required to have made their TV equipment digitally compliant. Sakamoto sees the situation as creating a lot of angry consumers. "Right now you get a small TV for as cheap as [yen] 10,000. But people with those will then have to be forced to get tuners costing [yen] 50,000 or more. They're going to hate doing that."

The homes affairs ministry's Kawamura dismisses that scenario, arguing that the future market for terrestrial DTV sets will be very different from the more exclusive market for satellite digital sets. "The sets being sold right now are all BS and CS (communications satellite) as well as terrestrial digital. They all have big screens of 30 inches and more. Even the cathode ray tube type costs about [yen] 300,000 with other sets going up to [yen] 600,000 and [yen] 700,000. But we're only talking about the most expensive ones," he says. "When more and more digital TVs come onto the market, many will be of the type that just handles the terrestrial [digital] broadcasts plus ones having small screens. That will bring down prices.

"Right now digital TVs number only in the thousands, but once they get into the tens and hundreds of thousands, they'll get cheaper."

For the broadcasters as well, the switch to DTV means whopping startup costs. All stations, regardless of size, will be required to have installed new antennae, transmitters and production equipment. The cost of making those changes is estimated to be around [yen] 800 billion throughout the industry, according to a preliminary projection by broadcasting companies.

The government recognizes the huge financial burden. In 1999, it passed a law to provide some relief, giving private TV stations preferential loans and tax breaks to get their terrestrial DTV services off the ground, so to speak.

In September, Toranosuke Katayama, then home affairs minister, called for greater financial support and suggested the ministry may amend the law to provide more direct and lasting help to broadcasters.

Perhaps the help will be appreciated most by the cable TV (CATV) providers. Due to the relatively small scale of their operations, the cost of conversion is hitting them particularly hard.

CATV companies in Japan have long been tiny and fragmented. That's because early regulations restricted the companies to owning only one operator and operating only in their local areas. Those regulations were eased, however, in 1993.

Since then, there has been a degree of consolidation within the industry. Japan's biggest CATV provider, for example, is Jupiter Telecommunications Co., created out of a 2000 merger between the two biggest CATV companies at the time. Jupiter operates J-Com Broadband, which claims to have around 1.5 million TV subscribers in four regions: Kanto, Kansai, Sapporo and Kyushu.

J-Corn plans to begin offering its customers DTV starting early next year, although in limited areas. The digital broadcasts would be simulcast with the analog ones, and J-Coin promises to get the DTV signals into more subscribers' households as quickly as technically possible.

Not that large numbers of subscribers seem all that concerned. So far, consumers have shown little inclination toward DTV in all of its forms. Typically, they are either uninterested or simply confused over the future course that television technology is starting to take.

And who can blame them? Until now, acquiring a TV set has been a rather simple task, and one usually not requiring a lot of money.

But a trip to an electronics retailer nowadays reveals a bewildering choice of TV receivers, some with plasma screens, others with liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, some with varying aspect ratios (a screen's width to height). Some units are equipped with digital tuners, others with analog. Some require the delicate job of setting up a satellite at home.

And while the prices of analog TVs have dropped sharply in the last decade--mostly due to Japanese manufacturers shifting the bulk of their production to China--the cost of acquiring a digital TV remains astronomical. Many models now on the market retail for over [yen] 1 million, and the lowest-priced sets cost well over [yen] 100,000.

It's going to take a lot of deft planning by the authorities--and considerable active cooperation from manufacturers and broadcasters--to excite and motivate Japan's TV viewers about DTV. Stay tuned.

BASIC FRAMEWORKS OF DIGITALIZATION OF TERRESTRIAL TV BROADCASTING

1. Full-scale shift from existing analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting

2. The frequencies for existing analog broadcasting are partly changed, as the first step, to ensure frequencies for digital broadcasting.

3. Digital broadcasting is scheduled to be started in the three major metropolitan areas of Kanto, Kinki and Chukyo by the end of CY2003, and in the other regions by the end of CY2006.

4. In terms of viewer protection, the simultaneous broadcasting service of analog and digital broadcasting is to be provided until CY2011. Digital broadcasting services will be offered using digital technology centering on high definition television (HDTV) broadcasting.
 2001 2002 2003

Terrestial Broadcasting Broadcasting Broadcasting
Digital TV services services services
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 start in three start in three start in three
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 the end of the end of the end of
 CY2003 (Key CY2003 (Key CY2003 (Key
 Stations) Stations) Stations)

 Simultaneous Simultaneous Simultaneous
 broadcasting: broadcasting: broadcasting:
 Simulcasting Simulcasting Simulcasting

 2004-2010 2011

Terrestial Broadcasting
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Broadcasting other areas will
 be launched by
 the end of
 CY2006 (Key
 Stations)

 Simultaneous
 broadcasting:
 Simulcasting

Terrestial Terrestial analog
Analog TV broadcasting will
Broadcasting be terminated


EFFORTS TOWARD DIGITALIZATION OF BROADCASTING IN JAPAN

1. BS Digital broadcasting started in December 2000, following introductin of CS and cable TV digital broadcasting services.

2. With respect to terrestrial broadcasting, digital broadcasting is scheduled to be launched in the three major metropolitan areas of Kanto, Kinki and Chukyo by the end of CY2003, and in other areas by the and of CY2006.
 2000 2001 2002

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NUMERICAL TARGETS FOR TERRESTRIAL DIGITAL BROADCASTING RECEIVING UNITS

* These numerical targets are for terrestrial digital broadcasting receiving devices installed at home, such as all-in-one units, set-top boxes and PCs able to receive terrestrial digital TV broadcasting.

* These numerical targets were jointly set forth by broadcasters and manufacturers after deliberations upon the targets at the "Working Group for Deliberations on Diffusion" (November 2002 and March 2003) under the "Roundtable Conference on the Future Aspects of Broadcasting in the Age of Broadband."

* Numerical targets to be set forth:

* Number of households to be covered: All households (48 million households) to be covered by the beginning of 2011.

* Number of devices to be disseminated: 100 million units by summer 2011 (termination of analog broadcasting).

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HDTV?

A brief history:

AT THE HEART OF the digital broadcasting is high-definition TV (HDTV), the format that produces stunningly clear images and bombastic surround sound.

Japanese researchers were the first to begin studying HDTV back in 1964. By the early 80s, they had made impressive strides and were ready to show off some of their achievements, including some visually stunning broadcasts of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Many in the United States, however, greeted the breakthrough with alarm. Once again it had seemed that Japan was poised to dominate another strategic field of high technology.

Japan's homegrown format was Hi-Vision (called MUSE in the US) and uses analog technology, for encoding. It had been developed and promoted by NHK, with several Japanese electronics manufacturers also participating in its research and development.

Meanwhile the Americans and Europeans, though well behind Japan in HDTV development at that point, decided in the late 80s that the future lay in fully digital formats.

In 1991 and 1992, the US authorities began testing four digital HDTV formats along with Hi-Vision. But not long afterward they dropped the analog Japanese system, after judging it inferior to the fully digital ones.

In late 1996, the US Federal Communications Commission adopted the ATSC Digital Television Standard, featuring 18 different format variations, including HDTV and standard definition TV (SDTV) formats.

Two years later, HDTV suddenly became the focus of a bitter trade dispute between Japan and the US.

The Pentagon, which was looking to apply HDTV to some of its military hardware, accused NHK of aggressively pressuring Japanese TV manufacturers to cease development of HDTV formats--especially those that were competitive with Hi-Vision.

The Japanese HDTV format uses 1,080 interlaced scanning lines. That means the screen shows every odd line at one scan of the screen, to be followed by a scan showing even lines. Half a flame is displayed every 60th of a second.

US HDTV formats, on the other hand, have 720 lines and use a progressive scan system. The entire picture with all its lines is displayed every 60th of a second. The image is thus smoother compared to Hi-Vision, which is known to suffer from flicker on large screens.

In addition, the IT Industry prefers the 720 progressive scanning system, as it more easily integrates with personal computers and their accessories.

The conventional NTSC analog TV screen, by comparison, has 525 lines and a resolution of 210,000 pixels. The best HDTV formats have about 10 times the number of pixels and produce a picture 10 times superior in quality.

DTV in Japan can use five formats, compared to the 18 recognized in the US. Two of the five closely resemble the standard NTSC in terms of resolution, and one is an HDTV format that will require an extremely high scanning frequency.

All the HDTV formats are wide-screen with an aspect ratio of 16 to 9, compared to analog TV's standard 4 to 3.

It all adds up to images whose quality is comparable to that of a 35 millimeter movie, together with digital sound boasting the fidelity of a compact disc. Quite a lot of bang for your buck--but quite a few bucks, too. At least for now.

* GEOFF BOTTING is a Canadian who has lived in Japan for over 15 years. After finishing his studies in Japanese at Nihongo Gakko in Osaka during the bubble years, Geoff found the country so fascinating he decided to stay. He has worked as a writer, translator and editor at NHK, the Mainichi Daily News and Kyodo News. Most recently he has been working as a freelance journalist based in Tokyo, exploring the nexus of business and culture.
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Title Annotation:Feature
Author:Botting, Geoff
Publication:Japan Inc.
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Words:3639
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