In an exclusive interview with Digital Studio, Dr. Riyadh Najm, assistant deputy minister for Engineering at the Ministry of Culture & Information, Saudi Arabia, shares with us some of the key milestones in the Kingdom over the last ten years and what lies ahead.
What are some of the important developments in Saudi Arabia over the last decade?
We have come a long way. One of the most important developments in the Kingdom was in 2006, with the introduction of digital terrestrial TV (DVB-T). We are the first in the Arab world and in the Middle East to adopt digital terrestrial transmission. That means all of our four radio and four TV programmes can be transmitted terrestrially apart from being broadcast via satellite. The advantage is that you can receive these programmes with a normal indoor or outdoor antenna without a dish. The terrestrial multiplex includes also an interactive information service, again unique in our region.
This is one way of securing safe content to the conservative Saudi population. It is also a means to deliver value-added services to the public that is not available in other forms of broadcasting (e.g. satellite).
This is actually a big project because we are now upgrading all our terrestrial TV stations from analogue to digital. Of the 140 TV stations we have for Saudi TV across the country, we have upgraded 28 TV stations. Most of these stations have FM radio programming.
But we do have 24 purely radio stations to transmit medium wave and short wave to different parts of the Globe.
We have also purchased several OB vans, upgraded our stations to at least two channels from the standard one we have. We have tried to spread the FM radio to all the parts of Saudi Arabia as there is emphasis on FM now. Whenever we build a TV station, we now utilise the same infrastructure to also transmit radio channels. So now we have the FM radio transmission within the same TV facility.
Can you elaborate on your current role?
In my current role as assistant deputy minister, I am responsible on one side, for planning, executing and supervising all the projects of the Ministry of Culture and Information including radio, TV, Saudi Press Agency, printed press and cultural facilities in the Kingdom. I am also overseeing the operation and maintenance of the Radio AM network and all the Ministry buildings and facilities. Another important role of the Engineering Affairs is the frequency managements of all radio and television and participation in regional and international conferences in the various fields of technologies for satellite, radio and television.
Where does KSA stand with regards to using broadcast technology?
In Saudi Arabia, since the beginning, we have been one of the early adopters of new technology. For example, in 1982, when Betacam recorders were introduced, we were the first to adopt it in this region. Later, when the DVC Pro and other formats were introduced into the market, we adopted these as well. We are the first country in the region to introduce digital terrestrial broadcasting, which started in 2006. We are now covering 28 cities with this service.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
One of the big challenges in this market has been the transfer from analogue to digital format in TV transmission. For the past 25 years, we have struggled to put more analogue channels in remote areas trying to deliver our four TV channels kingdom-wide. Over the years, we were successful in delivering only two analogues channels across the country. But in 2005, we have decided to adopt digital technology (DVB-T) to deliver terrestrially a bouquet of four to five TV channels, four radio programmes and an interactive information service to our viewers in the Kingdom. The digital service is the first in the Middle East and in the Arab region. It started in June 2006 and now we have covered 28 cities in Saudi Arabia reaching almost 70% of the population. The second phase of digitising the network will take place in 2008 converting another 25 stations to the digital system.
Additionally, Saudi Channel 1 is being broadcast outside the Arab world globally as part of an Arabic bouquet of TV programmes reaching all six continents by satellite. Saudi TV Channel 2, which is in English, is also broadcast to North America, Europe and greater Asia on DTH satellites in these regions.
What is Saudi Arabia's take on High Definition?
We have decided to be part of the move to HD. In 2006, we decided that all our new TV facilities will be HD ready. We started with the two studios in Madinah and Qassim, which were due for re-furbishing. Both studios are being commissioned now. In the first stage, they will be used as SD studios until we are ready for HD transmission.
Then, in our Riyadh TV centre, we have three new studios, one for the news channel, one for sports channel and one for production. We hope to finish two of the studios in Riyadh by the end of the year. We have decided to standardise all our production facilities on one format, namely 720p/50, without conversion throughout the chain.
What is your investment in this?
From an economical point of view, we have felt that it is better to start now. We envision that we will have to invest 20-25% more (compared to SD) so that we become HD-ready when we decide to transmit in high definition, which we believe will start sooner than what many expect.
What is your opinion about media openness and deregulation in KSA?
We do realise the need for carefully deregulating audio-visual media in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the MOCI is putting together the regulations to have some private channels broadcast from KSA. We are most likely to begin with FM radio and then focus on TV. We are focusing on terrestrial channels first, and then, satellite channels operating within the country. His Excellency, the Minister of Culture and Information talked about this issue on several occasions. If things go as planned, we expect to have the first private FM radio in 2008. We do have a lot of requests for this service.
What are some of the new technologies that you foresee an interest in?
We have given permission to the two mobile phone operators in Saudi Arabia, STC and Mobily, to stream some of the more moderate TV Arabic channels as part of their 3G services to customers.
We are also considering a pilot DVB-H trial in the coming months. As telecom and broadcast are converging more and more, we have to start putting up regulations for all the new services that are emerging. We are cooperating with CITC, the Saudi Telecom regulator, to identify the responsibility for regulating these new services.
What lies ahead for the Kingdom?
In 10 years, we believe there will be more openness in the media and more private channels will be allowed to broadcast out of KSA starting with FM radio.
This will happen within a framework that is acceptable to the population, providing them with alternatives to content that are reaching them by satellite and new forms of media.
IPTV is probably coming soon because telecom companies have acquired licenses for large amounts of money and expect to deliver triple play services; TV, internet and telephony to the public. All this creates more challenges for us.
However, we realise that we have to be part of this world. Otherwise, we'll be left behind.
Dr. Najm served as director of the Technical department at the Ministry of Culture & Information in Saudi Arabia for 13 years and in 2003, he was promoted to director general of Channel 2 of Saudi TV.
In 2005, he was promoted to the post of assistant deputy minister for Engineering at the MOCI. In this role, he has been responsible for the entire range of technical responsibilities at Saudi TV and Radio, along with the engineering part of the other cultural facilities in Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Riyadh has also played several roles outside the Kingdom.
He has been a member of the ASBU since 1982 and was elected chairman of its technical committee from 1995 to 2005. In 2005, he retired from this post.
He has been the vice chairman of the broadcast arm of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU since 2000.
Since 2002, Dr. Najm has also been chairman of the Technical Committee of the World Broadcasting Union (WBU), which is a consortium of the eight broadcasting unions in the world.