Issue No. 4
Spring 2000
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View from Dubai: The Digital Future

By TBS Contributing Editor Chris Forrester

DUBAI, UAE -- CabSat 2000, the 6th annual Dubai cable, satellite and broadcast show (Feb. 29-Mar. 2), generated plenty of fresh business as well as hard news from the region’s broadcasters. Local hardware distributors all had smiling faces, largely from the much higher margins generated by digital receiver sales compared to the now depressed analogue market. Indeed, CabSat Dubai was altogether a livelier event than its 1999 predecessor, with trade visitors up some 25 percent.

The show was timely, not just to provide a snapshot picture of the state of the industry covering satellite, cable and terrestrial broadcasting, but also to finally screw the lid down on the coffin that was Sara Vision, the Riyadh-based MMDS that finally ran into the buffers in January. Sara Vision's collapse was yesterday's shock news, but as with broadcasters everywhere, they just turn their back on failure and look forward to the next—hoped for—success, while keeping a weather eye out for the next pitfall.

Locally based Emirates Dubai TV led the news pack with confirmation that it would launch a region-wide 36-channel DVB-T system shortly. The first six test channels went on air February 28, and according to EDTV chief engineer David Boxall, the currently free-to-air system is using Divicom and Hirschmann equipment, and being played out on Nokia boxes.

Riyad al-Shuabi, Dubai's special advisor on broadcasting, says the intention is to migrate the current 10-channel MMDS system to DVB-T, exploiting DVB-T's better transmission reach, tested to a 35-40 km radius of Dubai city. It is also quite possible that the system could extend outside this core area once more comprehensive testing takes place. The broadcast radius is key to the system’s success because of the adjacent emirates of Sharjah and Ajman.

No decisions have yet been made on encryption or box supplier, and it is known that tenders are out for quotation. The existing MMDS system used Nagravision encryption. Boxall says DVB-T technology was chosen by Dubai TV because of its potential for including multimedia. Time scale for full implementation is around 6-9 months.

Hussein Anani, spokesman for Dubai TV, says while no decision had yet been made on the precise channel lineup, they would be concentrating on high-value premium channels. Al-Shuabi has also been busy with Dubai’s Drama Channel added to the newly launched Dubai Sport and Business channels. Al-Shuabi is also leading a consortium of private investors backing two other digital channels. Travel, described by him as the world’s first Arabic-language travel channel, launched at the show. It will be transmitted on Arabsat, Nilesat and Eutelsat. Travel will shortly be joined by a Tele-Medicine channel.    

The launch timings for these are not accidental. Dubai is determined to carve out a broadcasting niche for itself, and there is intense competition between Dubai TV and local telco Etisalat. Dubai TV fulfils both a public-service role as well as commercially delivering pay-TV channels to the region. Meanwhile Etisalat, while running much later than expected (and scrubbing a launch date press conference into the bargain) with its 20,000 home cable system, nevertheless mounted an impressive display at CabSat. Dubbed E-Vision, Etisalat is promising a varied package of channels (basic, Arabic, Western, Asian, selective and a la carte) drawn from a 100+ overall bouquet which, says the company, will include PPV/NVOD movie channels.

Etisalat, in a statement issued at the show, say they will [pass] "a total of 100,000 homes by the end of year 2000." One local insider suggested this is an impossible target for E-Vision, adding "they have yet to decide on a number of key elements, not least a box supplier." Conditional Access will come from ViaAccess. It is also known that Pace Micro-Technology was having discussions with E-Vision, which suggests that the recent  tender to box-suppliers is still open. If Pace were to win the contract it would see them re-enter a market they once led. Pace had its XTV products on show, which places a 19 GB computer-type hard drive in the set-top box capable of about 20 hours of video storage.

E-Vision say that in addition to the "many channels [which] are on board. discussions were progressing well with other channels and program providers to finalize our product offerings." Etisalat declined to list those channels although did confirm that they have assembled content for two of their own channels (documentary and kids). One channel, Bloomberg TV (which is already available on Showtime), did confirm they would be present on E-Vision.

However, this is something of a dilemma for all platform operators in what is now a very confused local market, with more than one trader suggesting this confusion extends to would-be subscribers. On the one hand you have the big four DTH players (Orbit, Showtime, Star Select and ART) each claiming high subscriber numbers, taking the United Arab Emirates comfortably to a 60-70% satellite market. In addition, there are redistribution outfits like 10-channel Dubai Cable Vision, which uses analogue MMDS, and which is testing the DVB-T system. There is also local entrepreneur Bond Communications which uses RF and IF to distribute SMATV-type signals to a large number of apartments and high-rises in the region, and which is already adding NVOD and impulse PPV to some of its properties.

Most channel owners have struck exclusive distribution contracts, either for DTH satellite or terrestrial retransmission. In other words E-Vision has to go cap-in-hand to existing rights-holders for the more popular channels. Orbit, Showtime and the others seem disinclined to give away their key channel assets without adequate fiscal compensation, and neither Dubai Cable TV or E-Vision have had any such conversations.

Dubai is the key market, but close by are the separate emirates of Sharjah and Ajman, each with transmission frequencies under their control, and with transmitters that already reach well into the rich Dubai territory. One insider suggested that one likely scenario sees rival DVB-T systems emerging from outside Dubai. It could easily happen, and in the process create even more vibrancy, and perhaps confusion in an already cluttered market.

One skeptic questioned why E-Vision hadn't structured its hardware and operational build-out to a single company using a normal “turn-key” contract. Non-performance would be immediately invoke penalty clauses, but today's broadcast system integrators are well used to bringing together different elements of a system and giving reliable guarantees on delivery dates and performance minimums. Instead, it seems Etisalat has attempted to create its own play out system, depending far too much on (probably) impressive hardware, and forgetting that subscribers do not watch technology, but programs.

In other words, their delays are allowing the satellite (and probably DVB-T) technologies to win through.

Orbit, Star Select, ART and Showtime all seem to be winning this battle, both locally and regionally. All claim progress, and Showtime's president Peter Einstein describes his winter sales performance as "spectacular." continued

Next page: The ups and downs of ART

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo