Brazil Awaits Standard for DTV

Paulo Rebêlo
Wired News
January 2001

Considering Brazil has the world’s sixth largest television audience, it wasn’t surprising the Brazilian government mentioned the medium’s 50th anniversary on its homepage.

“Remove TV from Brazil and Brazil disappears,” journalist Eugenio Bucci says on Brazil’s official website.

But what kind of TV they’re getting has been a sore spot for those hoping the digital revolution would have conquered Brazil by now.

While DTVs are slowly but surely making their way into living rooms in the United States, Europe and Japan, it will take years before Brazilians can even purchase them in stores.

The problem is there is no standard in Brazil to transmit and receive digital signals. And coming up with one has proven troublesome.

Transmitting signals through cable is not an option because most Brazilians cannot afford to order cable services. National cable companies aren’t even turning up profits.

Most countries have conducted tests and picked the transmission standard that best suits their broadcasting infrastructure. But Brazil can’t afford to roll out DTV on its own, so it must team up with other countries for support –- which means adopting standards not necessarily compatible with its own infrastructure.

The National Association of Telecommunications in Brazil said the country won’t choose a standard until at least March 2001.

“Europe is truly interested in our transmission, mainly for the revenues and royalties,” said Carlos Capellão, technical director and engineer for the Engineering Television Society. “But … because the open TV in Brazil is transmitted by air, it’s natural that networks are interested in the Japanese model.”

The Brazilian Association of Radio and Television Engineers and Engineering Television Society have conducted indoor and outdoor tests that show the Japanese standard -– or Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting (ISDB) — is best suited for Brazil’s broadcast infrastructure.

ISDB uses a flexible video and audio compression standard (MPEG) that can receive information in almost any form. Unlike the U.S.-adopted 8VSB standard, it’s friendlier to “air” antenna transmissions and cheaper to implement.

But ISDB won’t be available until 2003, whereas 8VSB and the European preference –- COFDM -– could be implemented by 2001.

The Brazilian broadcasting industry is poised to adopt 8VSB or COFDM after it considers which one has the backing of the countries with the most resources. That would ensure the most returns on the Brazilian broadcasting industry’s investment.

Broadcasters say it will most likely be the U.S.-backed 8VSB.

Argentina has adopted 8VSB. Chile even abandoned its position on Mercosul — the union of South American countries promoting free trade in the region — to adopt the U.S. standard as well.

According to ANATEL, adopting the U.S. standard could lead to as much as $80 billion worth of investments from outside broadcasting bigwigs wanting to capture the vast Brazilian audience.

“It’s important to people that Brazil and the U.S. use the same standard because it would imply more investments, research and development at lower prices,” Advanced Television Systems Committee spokesman Robert Graves said.

The only problem is the 8VSB standard may be incompatible with Brazil’s buildings and its many antennae, thus causing “multipath distortion.”

Similar to an echo, multipath distortion occurs when broadcast signals bounce off large objects such as buildings or mountains. If the bounced signal and the direct signal aren’t in sync, the data is scrambled.

Unlike analog televisions that air slightly offset images, DTVs cannot interpret the scrambled signal and display an error message instead.

The chances of multipath distortion in inner cities caused one major U.S. broadcaster to protest the adoption of 8VSB over COFDM.

ATSC, which created 8VSB, said its standard was better than COFDM because it requires a signal half as strong to achieve equal coverage. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission conducted its own tests and agreed.

“While South and North America use a frequency of 6 Mhz for channels, Europe uses 8 Mhz,” Graves said. “Adopting (the European) standard and adapting to 6 Mhz isn’t a worthy idea to many TV specialists in Brazil.”

Then again, Graves and others may be ahead of themselves. Even if Brazilian broadcasters gain the resources to put up the DTV infrastructure, who will be their customers?

“Independently of the standard, it’s going to take a while until an ordinary Brazilian can have a DTV or even a digital encoder for analog TVs,” ANATEL Brazilian Communication Committee member Marcelo Alencar said. “They’ll be quite expensive for most of us.”