MEDIA: We’re sitting on the edge of a satellite digital revolution

This spring has seen a series of truly stunning moves by Europe’s key media players. It is no exaggeration to say that the ‘media architecture’ for the digital future is being put into place before our eyes.

This spring has seen a series of truly stunning moves by Europe’s key

media players. It is no exaggeration to say that the ‘media

architecture’ for the digital future is being put into place before our

eyes.



Europe’s communications groups are positioning themselves, to offer

multi-channel television and video-on-demand, through a variety of

delivery systems. They are seeking to collaborate for sound reasons:

they need agreed common technical standards and all the fire-power they

can muster for a giant leap forward. The first somewhat unexpected

development has been here at home, with British Telecom’s revelation

that its mass 5,000 home trial of video-on-demand at Ipswich and

Colchester started last summer, has been so successful, it is moving on

to a more commercial 1,000 home service in its Westminster cable area

this spring.



When BT started talking in detail about its plans to industry grandees

at last September’s Cambridge Television Convention there was polite

interest, but no great excitement. Many of the broadcasters and software

providers such as the BBC were taking part, offering programmes such as

EastEnders which, for a fee, could be called up, for example, before the

official transmission date.



But it would be fair to note that, until this month, BT’s initiative was

viewed in much the same light as those 1980s home-shopping experiments,

which seemed like the future, but never actually led to the local

supermarket taking the plunge. But BT, which, don’t forget, has a

shareholding link with US telecommunications giant MCI and is also on

the verge of a merger with Cable & Wireless, now clearly thinks it has

devised a fast user-friendly ‘video-server’ pay-TV system which can both

be offered more widely across the UK and exported abroad.



The other critical development is the creation of a grand commercial TV

alliance to launch digital television across Europe. The aim is to pick

off the markets by language and provide a common decoder and access

system to customers in the process. This provides the economies of scale

for the equipment manufacturers: allowing the price of the digital set

top boxes for unscrambling pay services to tumble.



The first step was last month’s triangular alliance between Rupert

Murdoch’s BSkyB, Canal Plus of France and Germany’s publishing and

terrestrial television giant, Bertelsmann. In a second stage, a fourth

broadcaster, Compagnie Luxembourgeoise Telediffusion announced last week

it was merging its television interests with the TV division of

Bertelsmann.



These operators also have about half of the capacity on the two new

Astra satellites dedicated to digital television: some 250 potential

channels - enough to start the satellite digital revolution and dictate

the speed of its roll-out.



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