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Argentina's Poorest First Served with Free Digital TV
email this pageprint this pageemail usMarcela Valente - Inter Press Service
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July 03, 2010

Argentina was planning to complete the digital transition in 2019, but officials as well as independent experts believe that the installation of repeater towers and distribution of converter boxes could bring the date of the analogue blackout forward.
Buenos Aires - In contrast to what has happened in most countries that have switched from analogue to digital television, in Argentina the technological leap has begun with the poorest households.

Before the first kick-off in the FIFA World Cup on Jun.11 in South Africa, the government of Argentine President Cristina Fernández distributed free converter boxes so that families with the least resources could use the new technology on their old television sets.

The Ministry of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services plans to hand over 1.2 million converters this year, and began with the poorest neighbourhoods in the south of Buenos Aires and nearby population centres in the metropolitan area.

So far, digital terrestrial television (DTT) is offered only by the state Channel 7 and by Encuentro, a subscription channel from the Education Ministry broadcasting educational, cultural and entertainment programmes.

The new technology provides access to more channels, higher picture quality and better sound, as well as some interactive capability.

The plan is to provide 16 DTT channels. Apart from Channel 7 and Encuentro, the state will add a children's station, one for science and technology, one for national cinema and another for sports. Private television consortia will also be able to participate by paying for a licence.

Distribution of converter boxes will continue in cities in the provinces, where 47 repeater towers are being installed. The aim is to achieve coverage for 75 percent of Argentina's 40 million people by the end of the year, said Planning Minister Julio de Vido.

Out of Argentina's approximately 10 million households, more than four million do not subscribe to paid television services. But in many rural locations, open channels like Channel 7 can only be viewed by contracting a cable or satellite service.

The ministry estimates that 22 million Argentines get the state channel for free, while another 13 million can only view it by subscribing to pay television, at an average cost of 50 dollars a month.

The government project aims to reach the entire country with digital television. In June a satellite service beamed the new technology to 170 rural schools, and the plan is to cover 12,000 schools within one year.

Total public investment in this scheme will be over 1.6 billion dollars.

In the view of experts, the initiative taken by the centre- left Fernández government in this transition was necessary because of the delays in the technology changeover, and they praised the decision to begin with the lowest-income sectors.

Communications scientist Guillermo Mastrini, an academic at the state University of Buenos Aires, told IPS that "promoting access to digital television is a positive step," but pointed out that it will be necessary to teach people "what it is used for, and how."

Analogue and digital television will coexist for some years. "It isn't straightforward. This is a new technology and knowledge about it will also have to be distributed, otherwise there is a risk that it may be counterproductive and be rejected," he said.

The set top box receivers, with a market price of 180 dollars, are being mailed to retired people on minimum pensions, beneficiaries of social programmes, households and cooperatives. They are loaned to users for free, but remain government property.

The packages, marked "Not for Sale", contain the set top converter, a remote control, an indoor antenna, connecting cables and a user's manual with a telephone number for technical assistance.

Households receiving child benefit and those on minimum pensions were the first to receive these kits because they are on government rolls, but a public invitation was also issued for all those eligible to apply for them.

"I saw a notice and I applied. I was told that I would get it in a month," Laura García, who lives with her parents and her child and receives social benefits, told IPS. Within a month, there were 50,000 registered applicants, the ministry said.

The government of former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999) had chosen the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) digital standard, used in the United States, but never implemented it.

During the presidency of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) it was decided to adopt the Brazilian system of digital terrestrial television (SBTVD-T), based on the standard developed in Japan.

Luis Valle, an engineer and professor of the postgraduate course on digital television at the private University of Palermo, told IPS that, unlike Brazil, where private capital was interested in the changeover from analogue to digital, in Argentina the state had to lead the transition as otherwise the process would not have taken place, since in more than 10 years the private sector had done nothing.

"Private companies in Argentina are interested in other things, like cable or broadband television," he said.

"However, in such a large country without much infrastructure, the state must create the conditions for even development across the country, and as so much time had been lost, it chose to carry out free distribution among low-income sectors," he said.

In other countries, the state has subsidised the technology switchover, or distributed free converter boxes, but only at the end of the transition process, when relatively few people were left behind and the "analogue blackout", when all television broadcasting changes to digital, was imminent.

Argentina was planning to complete the digital transition in 2019, but officials as well as independent experts believe that the installation of repeater towers and distribution of converter boxes could bring the date of the analogue blackout forward.

"This policy will help the private sector, because companies broadcasting on open channels will be able to transmit digital television, once they have a frequency licence for it," Valle said.

The head of the state Argentine Radio and Television company, Tristán Bauer, said "paid television programming will not disappear, but it will change."

"The state is spearheading this technological transformation, but there will be coexistence with the private sector," he said.

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