Digiturk goes HD

Investment in HD broadcast facilities in the Middle East has been slow so far. Turkish satellite broadcaster Digiturk, however, has undertaken a major upgrade designed to see it through the HD revolution. John Parnell reports.
Analysis, Broadcast Business

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Istanbul-based DTH provider, Digiturk transmits 160 'services'. Of these radio stations, TV channels and interactive options, around 100 are national exclusives. It also holds the rights to domestic Turkish football competitions up until the end of the 2009/2010 season. This is a likely contributor to Digiturk's rapidly increasing subscriber base, which now sits at 1.8 million.

The company has led the way in the implementation of previous technologies and was keen to continue this strategy.

 

We knew from our past experiences that it can take a long time, not only to train our operators on how to use the equipment, but just to figure out how we wanted to work with the equipment as standard.

"The main priority with the new system is HD," says Emre Uysal, head of production development and operations at Digiturk. "Our old Philips set-up is now at the end of its lifespan. The new integrated Harris installation we have gives us great flexibility between SD and HD, which is now very important."

 

Regulatory complications in Turkey have held up digital terrestrial transmissions, leaving satellite as the only possible source of HD content, according to Uysal. This situation has increased the value of early implementation for Digiturk.

"We will have HD football and are planning two other new HD channels as well, National Geographic and a movie channel. These will be the first HD channels in Turkey for now, but we will have competition at some point. It is important for us to be first. The combination of HD and the exclusive football rights form the backbone of what is a solid strategy for Digiturk," claims Uysal.

At the heart of the new installation is a host of Harris software and hardware including the H-Class D-Series Playout automation application, 10 NEXIO XS servers and a Platinum router among others. The cost of the new infrastructure is estimated at US $18 million. The anticipated ROI of three to four years has been stretched due to the system being in partial use for most of this year. This time was also used to allow the operators to familiarise themselves with the new software.

"It took us two months to do the physical install, but we worked for 10 months to get it operational. It was more complicated because we had to adapt the new Harris systems and the legacy system around each other. Because we already have an existing system and workflow, the operation of the Harris system is different than if it were standalone," explains Uysal.

Harris took more of a back seat position during the planning period, instead delegating the work to its local master distributor, Bilgi Elektronik.

Engineers from Digiturk and Bilgi worked together on the planning, design and implementation. This process was complicated by the continued active presence of the legacy system.

"Essentially, it is a turnkey solution but we have been able to customise it around the old hardware. We are running the old systems as well but we are phasing them out over the course of the next year. They don't cost much in maintenance so it is cost effective to run them both for now. We knew from our past experiences that it can take a long time, not only to train our operators on how to use the equipment, but just to figure out how we want to work with the equipment as standard," continues Uysal.

"Operators tend to resist a new system to begin with. We had a little resistance here but now they are happy to use it. This system is much more intuitive and has a more visual interface compared to the old DOS style. So it is less labour intensive for the individual and offers us more flexibility as a network. The NEXIO XS servers, for example, mean we can switch between SD and HD very easily. They save everyone some work."

The Digiturk order is the first integrated HD installation Harris has undertaken in the EMEA region. The flexibility of the system allows broadcasters to adjust the volume of HD output as they see fit, without committing to a dedicated HD set up. A broadcaster can therefore increase its commitment to HD transmission (within transponder limitations) in a more composed manner, as and when it sees fit. This soft approach may be the best solution for the region's broadcasters who have so far been reluctant to commit wholeheartedly to HD technology.
 

Said Bacho, managing director of Harris Middle East is confident that this is only a temporary situation. "HD will be one of the driving factors in our growth. I think that HD rollout across the Middle East is imminent," he says.

Apart from the HD specifications, Digiturk was keen to ensure that the system would have a long lifespan and be future proof.

"We specified in our tender that the new system should be future proof. I think this system has achieved that," says Uysal. "It's not easy to change systems; even if you alter just one element, it affects many more. As a customer, you are looking for at least a ten-year lifetime. That way, there are no avoidable, disruptive updates required."

In addition to the new technical infrastructure, Digiturk is investing heavily outside of its headquarters. For instance, an 18-camera HD OB van has recently been commissioned. The truck will be the first HD-capable OB unit in Turkey and will be used almost entirely for Digiturk's 170-match per season football coverage.

"If you do the math, you can see we really needed a dedicated OB van. It will be 90% used for Lig TV. We can use this for other things though and we can rent it out as well but it will mainly be used for the football. It is wired for 18 cameras, but initially we will use 14, 12 of which are HD. We can upgrade to 18 later."

Like the main Harris install, the OB van was designed and engineered by people from Bilgi Elektronik and Digiturk. Sony Eurasia was the systems integrator providing 12 Sony HDC 1550 cameras and other components. Harris provided the main broadcasting infrastructure including a Platinum 256x256 router and Inscriber G3 HD/SD graphics system from its 6800+ and NEO audio/video processing and distribution ranges.

"It can handle one main production and a smaller side production. Football is our focus and we do not regret investing in Lig TV. The ROI is really significant and we want to provide the best coverage we can. Our investment in the HD van indicates how much we value football as part of Digiturk's long term strategy.

In addition to its 16-floor HQ (eight of which are above ground and eight below), Digiturk has two production partners who are linked via fibre optics to the main network. Still though, space is limited.

"We need another big site in order to achieve a level of redundancy so we can safeguard our transmission should we have a failure. That is the disadvantage of being here. The big advantage is having everyone under one roof and to be close to our partner companies," says Uysal.

"We have plans to expand into a new building next year where we will base our redundant headend, and perhaps some of our services. We may move in next year but it will take longer to implement the system and get it fully operational."

Choosing the SD/HD capable infrastructure could be interpreted as yet another HD compromise like those we see from some content providers and to a lesser extent, consumers. The three-way stand off means the HD stalemate could be prolonged.

On the other hand, the SD/HD install makes good business sense. No single company is responsible for initiating the HD revolution on their own. The Digiturk installation marks several firsts for Harris, Turkey and the EMEA region and could signal a likely path for the Middle East industry. As the region's broadcasters continue to mull their approach to the HD question, flexibility, ROI and product lifetime are sure to move even higher up the list of desired qualities in playout systems.

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