December 18th, 2014 passed with little fanfare in the region’s broadcast community, and yet the date marked a historic turning point for broadcasting in the UAE and the wider region: Sharjah Media Corporation, the emirate’s state-run broadcaster, switched off its legacy analogue transmitters and switched to the DVB-T2 standard which provides for terrestrial digital broadcasting.
While the development was in line with international broadcast standards,it was significant for the Middle East because SMC was the first – and remains the only – broadcaster in the region to have deployed DVB-T2 infrastructure and started broadcasting with it.
“At the ITU conference in 2006, it was decided that terrestrial broadcast all over the world would move to DVB-T2. We as SMC are the first TV broadcaster in all of the Emirates and even the Gulf and the Middle East to follow this. We started and finished and we are on-air,” Mounaf Hannouneh, engineering director at Sharjah Media Corporation, told Digital Studio.
Hannouneh added that the switch to DVB-T2 has brought huge efficiency gains both in terms of spectrum and energy usage. Indeed, the project, which cost more than AED7 million ($1.9m), means that SMC theoretically has the capability to broadcast 16 standard definition (SD) channels or five HD channels compared to a single channel using the old analogue system.
The upgrade was managed by German broadcast technology giant, Rhode & Schwartz. “They’re the best company in the world for all transmission projects,” Hannouneh says.
He adds that the project took about 12 months and covered seven locations: Sharjah Media Studio, Al Khan, Kalba, Dhaid, BuHayes, KorFakkan and Dibba. After covering Sharjah, SMC also deployed antennas to cover Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Qawain, Fujairah and Dubai. The third and final phase of the project will cover Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. “Now we are covering 70 or 80% of the population of the UAE and after the third phase, we will cover all of the UAE,” Hannouneh says.
In this way, the upgrade to DVB-T2 is also instrumental to SMC’s ongoing upgrade to HD. Indeed, the organisation currently has four channels: Sharjah 1, Sharjah 2, Sharjah Sports and Kalba TV. Of these, Kalba TV and Sharjah 1 are already being transmitted in HD. The other two channels are due to move to HD by the end of the year, although Sharjah 2 will only be available via terrestrial.
In addition, Sharjah 1, Sharjah Sports and Kalba TV are also broadcast via satellite, which makes them available internationally. Hannouneh explained that the satellite transmissions give these three channels international reach, allowing Emirati and other Arab expats the chance to watch them.
“Channel 1 is all over the world, Sports Channel is only on NileSat, and Kalba is now on Arabsat, but we plan to make our Sports Channel also available on NileSat and EutelSat this year to expand its reach. We are already all over the world,” Hannouneh says.
But the transition to HD is far from simple. As Hannouneh explains, just about every component in the chain must be changed or upgraded.
“Everything needs to be upgraded for HD because it is completely different to the SD. In general everything in an SD studio should change for an HD upgrade – even the monitors and cables, because it is completely different,” he says.
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SMC has already upgraded two of its studios to HD. Two more studios will be upgraded by around August or September and a fifth studio is currently being installed with the latest HD equipment. In addition, three IT systems are also being upgraded to cater for HD. “By the end of this year we will have fully migrated to HD,” he says.
SMC is working with various systems integrators on these projects. For example, Hannouneh says that Tek Signals is upgrading Studio 3 and the MCR. Studio 4 was upgraded by Sony, while BFE upgraded the news centre, or Studio 1, a project that was completed last year. Hannouneh says that SMC is currently preparing RFPs for the last two studio upgrades – studios 2 and 5.
The table system has also been partially upgraded and the second phase of this project will be completed this year.
Another vital part of the infrastructure that requires an upgrade as part of any HD project is the storage systems. Hannouneh gives an interesting insight into just how HD affects this side of the broadcast set-up. “Last year we upgraded our storage 16 times. We had 48 terrabits previously and now we have 768 terrabits,” he says.
He adds that the company will also upgrade its archiving systems this year to meet the higher demands of HD. SMC has also been careful to innovate through IP channels. Three of its TV stations and both of its radio stations are available online, accompanied by dedicated apps for tablets and smartphones.
But while upgrading to HD and growing its audience via satellite and IP channels is helping take Sharjah to the world, SMC is also re-doubling its efforts to broadcast news and events from all parts of the emirate. Indeed, the corporation is currently in the process of developing a new TV station in the city of Dhaid to cover the central region of Sharjah.
For this project, SMC is developing a dedicated facility including studios in Dhaid. Dr Khalid Al Midfa, director general, Sharjah Media Corporation, says that the location for the Dhaid site has been selected. An earlier site had previously been chosen, but His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi personally intervened and selected a better site for the facility.
There will be a team of about 40 to 60 people working at the Dhaid facility, according to Al Midfa. “We will make this a complete TV station. What we need is exactly the right number of people like we have in Kalba. In Kalba we have about 50 people working,” he says.
The rationale behind the new station is to increase SMC’s coverage in the eastern provinces and also to provide employment opportunities.
“They will do everything from there. They will produce programmes, and of course they will also buy programmes,” Al Midfa says.
In terms of covering local events, Al Midfa says the idea has some parallels with the UK, where local broadcasters cover news and events which are then reported on local slots on the main channels. However, Dhaid TV will be a step further than this, as it will be an entire channel dedicated to the central region.
In a bid to help it cover events, particularly in outdoor and remote parts of the emirate, SMC has also invested in OB vans. Hannouneh explains that the corporation currently has three OB vehicles and one Flybox, essentially a small portable studio.
All of SMC’s OB vans are HD: two were recently upgraded to HD, and the third is new and was purchased as HD. “OBs cover a lot of events. There are three of four cities in Sharjah and they have a lot of events. We should cover everything, including sports. We need one OB just for sports,” Hannouneh says.
Furthermore, SMC also requires satellite news gathering capability. For this reason, one of SMC’s OB vans is equipped with digital satellite news gathering capability, and the company is set to invest in another SNG OB vehicle in the coming months.
“Sharjah is big and if the crew is more than 40-50 km from the microwave signal they need satellite news gathering (SNG),” Hannouneh says.
While Sharjah Media Corporation’s investments in DVB-T2, IP and satellite distribution platforms ensure that its channels are transmitted to viewers across the UAE and around the world, when it comes to content, the organisation also has a strong focus on staying true to its roots by covering the entire emirate.
Indeed, by establishing a full channel with its own dedicated facility in Kalba last year, Sharjah Media Corporation ensured that the emirate’s eastern zone would produce and receive programmes “in tune with the expectations of Arab viewers,” according to Dr. Khalid Al Midfa, director general of Sharjah Media Corporation.