“More Democratic” … “It is a matter of social justice”

So US ambassadors have lobbied South American governments since 2007 that “[t]he issue is whether the government will choose the [ATSC] digital television standard that is already providing the highest quality, lowest cost, and most democratic opportunities …”

In recent months Peru, Argentina, and now Chile have turned down ATSC for the Japanese-Brazilian ISDB digital TV system, so it is worth asking the somewhat inconvenient question of how did a controversial, pricey, and generally questionable digital television patent pool drift into becoming a US diplomatic cause for democracy slash trade policy?

And whether this advocacy should be carried forward under the leadership of the newly-appointed Ambassador Philip Verveer of the US State Department’s International Communication and Information Policy (CIP) group as it was by his predecessor David A. Gross, who as late as February 2008, advocated in an op-ed column published in Chile:

“During my recent visit to Chile, I met with decision-makers from the government, the National Congress, industry, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the media. I explained the clear advantages of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) standard: a significant better quality and coverage and a lower cost”

The CIP is one of seven issue-oriented organizations within the Bureau of Economic, Energy, and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.  In addition to Verveer, tech industry veteran Lorraine Hariton has just just been appointed Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs.

There is a lot of food for thought for the new team at CIP on this topic:

– trade policy and standards capture
broadband-broadcast convergence bridging a global digital divide
global level playing field network policy in the broadband age

To name a few.  Here’s to hoping the new CIP team will dig in, update outdated thinking, and lean forward!


The Opportunity for Chile in the Digital Television Age
Ambassador David A. Gross, U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy, February 14, 2008:

“More Democratic: For technical reasons, the ATSC standard allows for a much greater number of broadcast stations to operate in a given area, thereby allowing for new broadcast stations and more types of additional broadcasts such as educational programming. “

American ATSC Digital TV Standard Offers Chile Advantages of Accessibility, Lower Costs, and Higher Quality”, March 16, 2007:

“Ambassador Kelly pointed out that ATSC offers Chile the unique opportunity of approaching the information society for all its citizens. He noted that the American standard “is much more flexible and open to future changes at reasonable and accessible costs to all.” “It is a matter of social justice that all citizens are able to participate and are guaranteed access,” he emphasized.”

Remarks to the Commercial Association of Sao Paulo (ACSP)
E. Anthony Wayne,  U.S. Assistant Secretary for Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 6, 2006:

I’d like to briefly discuss Brazil’s vibrant telecommunications industry. I understand that President Lula is going to announce the selection of the Brazilian digital TV standard soon.

Of the several options on the table, we believe the ATSC standard [Advanced Television Systems Committee (the North American standard for digital TV, including high-definition)] offers the best combination of economic, social, and technical advantages. It has been adopted by the U.S., Canada, Mexico and South Korea. These countries that have adopted the ATSC standards are seeing a rapid increase in the sales of high definition television products. Brazil’s adoption of the ATSC standard will ensure a hemispheric standard, creating a market of 800 million people for DTV products and services.

The U.S. No longer manufactures television sets. This poises Brazil to supply high definition television sets, converter boxes, and transmission equipment throughout the Hemisphere. Brazil’s potential role as a leading supplier will help create high-paying, highly-skilled jobs and significant economic development.

The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation has set aside $150 million for U.S. Companies to invest in information technology development projects in Brazil. And U.S. Companies have already expressed their intention of making significant investments in ATSC-related manufacturing in Brazil.

ATSC’s open development process ensures Brazil a significant role in the evolution of the standard. Evolving ATSC standards present great opportunities for Brazilian-U.S. And Brazilian-South Korean collaboration and partnership.

A bright potential is shining for interactive TV in Brazil, which has a unique moment of opportunity to start from a complete, royalty-free specification — Ginga — and avoid the systemic stalling gridlock that has plagued patent-based/industry-segment-controlled interactive TV in the US and elsewhere.

The first developer conference is announced here for April 2.

It is heartening to see the broad mix of participation, including key players in the industry such as Globo (Brazil’s largest TV broadcaster), Intel, Sun Microsystems, CESAR Institut, University of Paraíba and SouJava (Brazil’s largest JUG).

Sun Microsystems has released a royalty-free Java specification as an alternative to the royalty-encumbered “GEM” and “MHP” family of digital TV specifications developed by the European Digital Video Broadcasting group and associated groups.

“GEM” and “MHP” may not be exactly household words, but they are the backbone specifications of the interactivity layer of Blu-ray, US cable’s “tru2way” platform, and national DTV adoptions in Italy, Korea, and elsewhere.

The backstory to this seemingly minor announcement should be evaluated closely by anyone around the world interested in the still-emerging field of digital TV deployments — it will provide eye-opening insight into the techno-politics of royalties, and the alternatives.

This royalty-free/open source specification work, announced in March 2008, has been a collaboration between Brazil’s Digital Television forum (SBTVD), the Brazilian government, Sun, and leading DTV vendors in Brazil to provide a royalty-free foundation to Brazil’s Ginga interactivity specification for DTV.

Patent royalties have been a painful aspect of digital TV rollouts around the world and belatedly recognized as problematic in the US.

Brazil is leading the charge of developing countries that are rethinking the business-as-usual approach of the developed world to the nexus between patent pools, standards, and open source (the word “neocolonial” comes up not infrequently when one looks at efforts by patent pools from developed countries to charge developing countries royalties to “join the digital TV era”).

Brazil has applied this fresh thinking to its digital TV rollout.  In 2006, Brazil chose the Japanese ISBD digital TV and mobile broadcasting standard in an MOU with Japan to “allow Brazilian companies to use the technology without paying royalties” — much to the chagrin and nay-saying of the royalty-encumbered European DVB and US/Korea ATSC standards.  The move sparked ongoing techno-geopolitical debates, but nonetheless has helped to up (or more accurately lower) the royalty ante for future DTV adoptions — like the already royalty-free UK MHEG-5 specification dodging the patent-pool bullet and enabling more royalty-free options for digital TV deployments.  One might suspect downward price pressure and bargaining leverage may have been in the picture when the MHP patent pool quietly lowered its prices.

Congratulations to the many incredibly talented people that have brought out the world’s newest and most innovative (and royalty-free!) interactive specification for digital TV, and thanks for the opportunity to help!